Office sex witness was unfairly dismissed, tribunal finds

A colleague at the Bromley ambulance service described the environment as a "toxic rumour mill"

A medic at Bromley ambulance station who reported that she had walked in on one of her female colleagues performing a sex act on a male manager was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.

Karen Gregory-Carr told two colleagues that she had walked in on the act, but two London Ambulance Service bosses accused her of making up the story.

She was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct.

The tribunal judge ruled that Gregory-Carr was unfairly dismissed as the investigation into her conduct was biased towards the belief she had maliciously falsified the claims. But the judge upheld that her actions amounted to gross misconduct, as she had not followed correct procedures for reporting the incident to management but instead told colleagues what she had seen.

Charlie Barnes, director and head of employment legal services at RSM UK, commented that spreading rumours about workplace relationships could amount to gross misconduct.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: "Where employees choose to spread gossip regarding a workplace relationship, this may amount to misconduct, particularly if it is done maliciously. Such rumours can be harmful to those involved, affecting both their personal and working environments, and potentially disrupting the business’s operations."

Barnes added that workplace regulations could also mean that employers are required to report relationships to their employer.

He continued: "There is usually no legal requirement for employees to report relationships of their colleagues at work; however, there may be regulatory reasons why employees are required to raise a reasonable belief of a workplace relationship with their employer.

"This includes where one of the employees involved is in a position of trust or the relationship would represent a conflict of interest. The normal expectation though is for the employees in the relationship to disclose this to their employer, so that such conflicts can be avoided."

Read more: Sexual harassment legislation: How can HR get ahead?

Gregory-Carr told the tribunal she found manager Philip Sullivan and medic Ceris Clarke engaged in sexual behaviour in 2022.

After she told two colleagues, details spread around the station. Sullivan and Clarke complained to management, who, after an investigation, concluded that Gregory-Carr had made up the story.

The tribunal ruled the investigation was flawed as it assumed that the rumour spread by Gregory-Carr was “malicious”.

Though the investigation concluded Gregory-Carr had not witnessed an incident between Sullivan and Clarke at all, the tribunal panel found she had witnessed something that she thought was “untoward”.

Employment judge Louise Rea said the lack of investigation signalled a “wider problematic culture in the workplace in relation to gossip and frequent sexual or romantic relationships being formed”.

A staff member who gave evidence at the trial described the office environment as a “toxic rumour mill” where gossip about staff having sex at work was rife, the Mail Online reported (15 June).

Read more: Male firefighters took ‘scenic route’ to ogle women, sex harassment tribunal hears

Jim Moore, employee relations expert at HR consultants Hamilton Nash, told HR magazine HR could prevent gossip about relationships with workplace policies.

He said: "Gossip about staff relationships can spread like wildfire through the workplace, with the potential to create a toxic atmosphere if the lines between truth and lies become blurred. It’s important for HR to nip problems in the bud by having clear policies around relationships at work.

“Policies should require employees to disclose relationships, especially when one party is in the other's management reporting line or if it involves a senior executive. The goal is to manage potential conflicts of interest and ensure appropriate business conduct, not to prohibit relationships outright.”

Moore added HR should foster a culture where employees feel safe to report inappropriate conduct between their colleagues.

He continued: “We wouldn’t recommend that employees be encouraged to report gossip about their colleagues' private lives, as this will only make the rumour mill spin faster. Instead, foster a culture where employees feel safe speaking to HR in confidence if they witness inappropriate favouritism or conduct between co-workers.

“Ultimately, employers aren’t there to police their employees' love lives, but it’s important to stop relationships from disrupting the workplace."