Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors: pregnancy gossip may amount to discrimination and harassment

Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors: pregnancy gossip may amount to discrimination and harassment

In a cautionary tale for HR Managers (and Solicitors), the facts of the 2010 case, Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors, were that Ms Nixon was seen kissing another employee at the office Christmas party and accompanying him to a hotel room.

A few weeks later she informed the firm that she was pregnant. The HR manager unfortunately began to gossip with other employees about the possible paternity of the child, which Ms Nixon later heard about. She then took time off work, raised a formal grievance and asked to be transferred to another office away from the HR Manager. This request was refused and the employer also refused to pay her for the time off. Ms Nixon then resigned and claim constructive dismissal, discrimination and harassment.

She initially lost her discrimination and harassment claims, but she eventually won all her claims on appeal to the EAT. The rationale for the decision is quite simple: discrimination had occurred because the gossip was clearly less favourable treatment connected to her pregnancy as was the employer’s later treatment of her and it also amounted to harassment as it was unwanted conduct which had the effect of violating her dignity or creating a hostile, degrading (etc) environment.

What this means for you
The legal tests are quite specific in order for discrimination or harassment to be made out. However, it is quite conceivable that an employer (or its managerial staff) might be given sensitive information about an employee and be tempted to gossip about their private life - where this involves the particularly well protected area of pregnancy, this is a very risky course of action!

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