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Commercial manager wins unfair dismissal tribunal after ‘size of a house’ comment

Hayley Thomas said her employers' behaviour towards her changed after she took sick leave for her mental health

Hayley Thomas won her claims for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination after she was subjected to a hostile and unwelcoming environment following absence for mental illness.

Thomas started work as a commercial manager at T&R Direct Insurance in April 2020.

She said that the two owners of the company, Justin Ward and Lee Taylor, had previously treated her "like family", but changed their behaviour towards her after she took four weeks of sick leave in April 2022.

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Thomas told the tribunal that Taylor continually disagreed with what she had said and demeaned her in front of other staff. She also said that Ward shouted at her repeatedly.

The tribunal heard that Taylor had made repeated insensitive and inappropriate comments about Thomas' eating habits. These included comments that she would be “the size of a house” if she did not stop eating, which led to Thomas avoiding eating lunch at work.

She also said he no longer valued her input and suggestions as he had done before her sickness absence, and accused her of finding excuses to avoid working properly and efficiently.

Thomas also said that she had been given additional work without a promised pay rise.

As result of this treatment, she was signed off work with depression and anxiety in July 2022, and resigned weeks later.

The tribunal ruled that Thomas was constructively unfairly dismissed. Her claims of disability discrimination and harassment relating to disability also succeeded. Compensation will be decided in a separate hearing.

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Matt Jenkin, employment lawyer at Herrington Carmichael, said employers should ensure they properly support an employee returning from sickness absence.

He told HR magazine: “Employers dealing with employees returning from sickness absence who treat that employee as a problem rather than an asset, risk finding themselves on the wrong end of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination claims.

“Employers should take the time to properly understand the reason for the absence having, where appropriate, stayed in touch with the employee during the period of sickness absence.

“Proper and detailed return to work interviews should be undertaken with a view to identifying the support that the employee needs with regular reviews taking place to ensure that the support is effective.”

Simon Jones, director of Ariadne Associates, added that the case highlights the importance of respectful language and behaviour towards employees.

He told HR magazine: "Making negative personal comments about staff, particularly by a manager to a team member, is indicative of an unpleasant business culture, even if it doesn't necessarily break the law.

“But making such comments to someone who you know has mental health issues, which is what happened in this case, could well lead to potential claims for harassment.

“As always, the suggestion that it was just 'banter' will never be a justification."