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‘Old school’ business loses sex discrimination case

A lesbian employee who was told by her boss to keep her sexuality hidden has won a sex discrimination case against her former employer.

McMahon v Redwood TTN Ltd & Pilling

Ashleigh McMahon was a quality control manager at Redwood TTM, a Lancashire based textiles firm. She disclosed that she was gay to her boss, Mr Pilling, during the first week of her new job. Her boss told her to keep quiet because the company did not have any other gay people working for it and because the owner of the business was described as ‘old school’.

Ms McMahon worked for the company from May 2017 before being made redundant in December 2017. She said that the request made her feel ‘odd and uncomfortable’ but she did not disclose her sexual orientation to anyone else within the company thereafter as she was concerned about potential repercussions for her employment.

She alleged that the issue of her sexuality came up at least twice during her employment. The first time, in the context of a dispute over a radio in her office, she alleged that Mr. Pilling had told her to remove it even though other members of staff were allowed to retain their radios. She challenged him on this and asked if she was being denied the radio because she was gay, which he denied.

She further alleged that when she advised Mr. Pilling that she would not be attending the Christmas party, as she felt uncomfortable that she could not disclose her sexuality, she was told that she would have to pay for her ticket as the number of attendees had already been confirmed.

She brought claims against her former employer for direct discrimination on the grounds of her sexual orientation.

The Employment Tribunal found that her sexuality had not been relevant to either the radio or Christmas party issues but upheld her claim for direct discrimination in relation to being asked to keep her sexuality quiet. The tribunal found that a hypothetical comparator who was not gay would not have been asked to keep their sexuality secret.

Comment

This case highlights the risks involved in treating employees differently on the basis of their sexual orientation (or any other protected characteristic).

Employees should not be required to divulge personal information if they are not comfortable doing so, but equally they should not be precluded from discussing aspects of their private life if others who do not share their protected characteristic can freely discuss those aspects.

Employers should have up to date equal opportunities policies detailing the business’ approach to equal opportunities and setting out what is and what is not acceptable.

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