If WhatsOnStage recommended you a play about a woman sacked for sexual harassment of another woman at the Office Christmas Lunch, even though the alleged victim had never made a complaint, you might have thought it sounded too far-fetched.
Sadly for Terri Paddock, its well-known Managing Director, it was all too true. Two days after the lunch Ms Paddock, who had been having difficulties with the US company which owned WhatsOnStage, was called in to see the CEO, Gretchen Shugart and the CFO Joe Yurcik (at which they both been present) and was accused of touching a colleague’s breast for 30 seconds and made offensive remarks about her body, for which she had allegedly been upbraided by Mr Yurcik himself. She was told to attend a disciplinary investigation the following day but was then offered an off-the-record discussion about the possibility of her leaving without invoking the disciplinary process. Ms Paddock became very distressed and was signed off sick by her GP who provided the employer with a medical certificate. Nevertheless the disciplinary hearing was not adjourned and she was dismissed without notice.
Browns, where the lunch had taken place, had CCTV which showed, as Ms Paddock had maintained, that the incident was part of a long-standing joke between herself and the “victim”, that the “victim” had jokingly waggled her breasts at Ms Paddock and that the touching (by invitation) amounted to no more than one second.
The London Central Employment Tribunal (ET) found that there had been no reasonable investigation and no reasonable belief in Ms Paddock’s guilt and that the invitation for an off-the-record discussion was designed to pressurise her into resigning. The ET was “particularly unimpressed” by one witness who claimed to have been speaking on behalf of the victim but whose grasp of detail was, to say the least, sketchy and by the Board Member of the US company hearing the appeal who had made no notes, had not understood the allegations and was clearly doing the bidding of Ms Shugart and Mr Yurcik. It also noted that Ms Shugart had asserted that Mr Yurcik remained “spooked…to this day” by the incident, something he himself had not claimed. The tribunal also found that Ms Paddock’s conduct did not breach her contract so as to entitle WhatsOnStage to dismiss her at all. See judgement here
Says Daphne Romney QC at Cloisters Chambers: “The employer’s handling of the disciplinary process was botched from beginning to end. It did not investigate the employee’s version of events, it ignored the clear CCTV evidence disproving the allegation of “a very serious piece of sexual harassment”, it does not seem to have involved the alleged victim at all and the appeal was obviously biased. As a result, the employee had her name dragged through the mud and had to spend 6 days in a Tribunal to clear her name. As for the proposed off-the-record discussion, it shows that some subtlety will be needed in raising this with the employee or it will simply be seen as another version of “resign or be sacked”.”
Cloisters barrister Declan O’Dempsey acted for the claimant in this case.