31 May 2011



July 9, 2007

Weirdest workplace disputes

Last week, the Employment Appeal Tribunal celebrated its 30th anniversary. We marked the occasion by trawling the archives and dusting off some of the more colourful UK employment disputes from the past few years.

Alex Wade and Alex Spence

14. CSI: Farnham. Tony Price, the managing director of WStore UK, an IT company based in Surrey, demanded that his 80 staff submit to a DNA test after a piece of chewing gum got stuck to a directors’ suit trousers. When his global e-mail pointing out the firm's chewing gum ban leaked to the media, Price cheekily suggested he would force staff to take lie detector tests to flush out the culprit.

13. Hands on treatment. A 34-year-old masseuse sued the prestigious Old Course Hotel at St Andrews for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination after she was allegedly fired for accusing an A-list celebrity client of lewd conduct; the employment tribunal later identified the celebrity as Kevin Costner after his name was posted all over the internet. According to the masseuse, the Dances With Wolves star removed his towel and asked her to "touch him everywhere". Costner, who was on his honeymoon and taking part in a golf tournament, denied the accusation vehemently. The hotel later settled with the woman.

12. Porn at sea? No thanks. The cliché of men in the armed serves cheering themselves up with top-shelf literature is well established, but it was too much for the Reverend Mark Sharpe, 37. The trainee chaplain left the Royal Navy declaring himself “horrified” by the amount of pornography below decks and issued a claim for sexual harassment and discrimination on the ground of his religious beliefs. At a tribunal in Exeter, the Navy admitted sexual harassment but denied the religious discrimination charge. Reverend Sharpe accepted an undisclosed sum in damages and is now a rural rector.

11. Fine whine. A Muslim insurance salesman took offence when his employer began offering bottles of wine for good performance. Imran Khan, 25, said that Direct Line’s incentivisation scheme put him at a disadvantage because his religion forbade him to drink alcohol, and he sought damages for “hurt feelings”. He lost.

10. Witches have rights, too. Sommer de la Rosa, a former teaching assistant at the Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton, accused the school of unfairly dismissing her because she was a witch. The 34-year-old claimed she had been made to “feel like a freak” after she was forbidden from wearing a pentagram and colleagues compared her Wiccan beliefs to communism. The school claimed she had been let go because of her poor attendance. The dispute was settled out of court.

9. Chard is for lovers. Sally Bing, a 31-year-old town clerk, won her claim for sexual discrimination and victimisation against the mayor of Chard, Tony Prior, after the 67-year-old putative lothario became infatuated with her. “We were standing shoulder to shoulder looking at a wall map of Chard,” the mayor explained. “When she stood close to me, it sent a sexual thrill through me. That was possibly when I wondered whether she had sexual feelings towards me.” The married Prior invited Bing on a walking tour of Andorra, and his advances eventually became so bad she rearranged the furniture in her office to create an escape route in case he appeared. Bing was awarded £25,000 from the council and £33,697 from Prior. And all that from staring at a map of Chard.

8. Wicked witchcraft. Sariya Allen, a teaching assistant who quit her job after three years at Durand primary school in Stockwell, London, sued the school for allegedly discriminating against her Pentecostal Christian beliefs. Allen had been disciplined for refusing to let a child read Harry Potter, claiming it glorified witchcraft. She lost.

7. Don’t call me ginger. Sarah Primmer, a 41-year-old former waitress at the Rendezvous Café in Plymouth, was awarded a “staggering” £17,618 for unfair dismissal and sexual harassment after suffering taunts over her ginger locks. Primmer alleged the café’s night manager had made a series of lewd and embarrassing comments in front of other staff because “they wanted to know if the colour of my hair matched the rest of my body”. Despite her vindication in the eyes of the law, Primmer was intent on ridding herself of her affliction. “I am going to try and get it lighter and lighter,” she said. “It is not nice to be ginger.”

6. Man’s best friend. David Portman successfully sued the Royal Mail for unfair dismissal after he lost his job for taking time off to mourn the death of his dog. The postman had missed 137 days in five years for reasons including breaking his foot when pushing mail through a letter box, spraining his ankle when standing on a piece of wood and being injured in a car accident. Throughout, his faithful hound Brandy had provided unstinting companionship. When one morning he found her dead at the foot of his bed, Portman took her demise badly and failed to show up to work for a week. He returned to find he had been sacked. A tribunal found that “none of the claimant’s absences were for other than wholly legitimate and genuine reasons”.

5. Foamy sales pitch. Wayne Simpson, an EDF Energy salesman, lost his £28,000-a-year job after he sent a customer a picture of himself sitting naked drinking whisky in a bubble bath. Simpson had met the female customer while selling door-to-door on Tyneside; he obtained her number and later sent the picture with a message saying, “Fancy going out for a drink sometime?” The woman didn’t and instead reported him to the company and the police. Simpson accused EDF of lacking a sense of humour. “I wasn’t even showing off my naughty bits,” he said.

4. The farting chair. Sue Storer, a 48-year-old teacher at Bedminster Down Secondary School in Bristol, sought damages of £1 million for sex discrimination and constructive dismissal claiming she had been forced to sit in a chair that made embarrassing sounds every time she moved. “It was a regular joke that my chair would make these farting sounds and I regularly had to apologise that it wasn’t me, it was my chair,” she said. Requests for a new chair had been repeatedly ignored while male colleagues were given sleek, executive-style chairs, she said. Her claim was thrown out.

3. Look out for the flour. Caroline Gardener, a lesbian shop worker at a Booker Cash and Carry, won her claim for unfair dismissal after she was fired following an altercation with a customer. Gardner, of Eastleigh, Hampshire, claimed a customer abused her because he couldn't find any lime cordial, telling her to "Get your sex life sorted out." She responded by throwing a bag of flour at him. “When he called me a filthy dyke I had a pack of flour in my hand and, although I regret it now, I threw it at the back of his head,” she admitted. “He then turned round and said, ‘You are a dyke and you’re going to get the sack’.” Gardner lost other claims for breach of contract and discrimination on the grounds of her sexual orientation.

2. Legal tender? Fred Raine was awarded £2,300 after an industrial tribunal agreed that his former employer, Lee’s Coaches, in Langley Moor, had underpaid him when he left the company due to illness in 2005. Nothing out of the ordinary in that, but the same can't be said for his former boss Malcolm Lee's chosen method of payment. The first £1,000 of Raine's severance pay was paid by cheque, but the remaining £1,300 turned up at his door in the form of a crate full of coins weighing 11 stone. Raine described the gesture as "unacceptable" and said he was consulting his lawyer.

1. An axe to grind. James Robertson, a convicted murderer who had served his time and was working as a health inspector for Preston City Council, found himself back behind bars after threatening a colleague with an axe during an argument at an Indian restaurant in 2001. The council (not unreasonably, you might feel) terminated his employment without notice, but Robertson sued for breach of contract. The employment tribunal ruled that the Council had acted illegally in not giving Robertson sufficient notice and ordered it to pay him two weeks’ wages as compensation, amounting to £807.50.
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