It's that time of year again, the Christmas party season is looming and for some businesses this will mean the usual (normally alcohol induced) shenanigans that keep the office gossips busy for months. We all like a good gossip, even lawyers - what was Judge so and so doing in his office with the court clerk late at night and why was he dressed as Worzel Gummidge and she as Aunt Sally, and so on. All harmless fun … unless it takes the form it did in Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors and another…
In a series of events which wouldn't be out of place in an episode of EastEnders, Ms Nixon was spotted at the firm's Christmas party "flirtatiously kissing" and later sharing a hotel room with the firm's IT Manager - you can almost feel the warmth from the gossip's hands as they were gleefully rubbed. Nixon later discovered she was pregnant (the father being a solicitor at the firm) and informed the Managing Partner. The Managing Partner told the HR Manager who then spread the news of her pregnancy around the office and encouraged speculation as to the identity of the father. A HR Manager … at a law firm - can you believe it?!
Feeling, unsurprisingly, that her confidence had been betrayed, Nixon raised a grievance and asked to temporarily transfer to a different office as her working environment had become so uncomfortable. This request was rejected and her pay was frozen whilst the matter was being resolved. The grievance was not dealt with and Nixon resigned, claiming constructive unfair dismissal and sex and pregnancy related discrimination.
The EAT decided the gossip was connected with Nixon's pregnancy, constituted a course of unwanted conduct and amounted to sex and pregnancy related discrimination and harassment. The refusal to allow her to move offices was discrimination on grounds of sex and pregnancy as it stemmed from gossip that was about her pregnancy. They also found that Nixon was constructively dismissed when her employer failed to deal with her grievance and insisted that she return to a workplace with an "unfavourable atmosphere". And finally, the Tribunal was wrong to reduce the compensatory award by 90% because "she acted irresponsibly at the Christmas party" and was the "author of her own misfortune".
Gossip cannot be stopped, however, this is a stark reminder that HR and management should not breach an employee's confidence. If a breach of confidence does occur then you must take active and reasonable steps to remedy this, such as stopping any gossip, especially when it relates to a Protected Characteristic (under the Equality Act). Now back to that Judge we were talking about earlier - just how did they get all that hay into the office?