Recruitment firm boss who didn't approve of office romances is forced to pay out £100,000

2 months ago 22

A recruitment firm boss who did not approve of office romances has been forced to cough up more than £100,000 after he fired a female executive just two days after sacking her husband.

Mark Atherton's behaviour towards Paula Whitbourn changed 'as a consequence' of her marrying his nephew, Jason, who also worked at the recruitment company, a tribunal in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. heard.

He would avoid communicating with the £90,000-a-year sales executive and made it clear he did not approve of relationships 'in the office'.

Mr Atherton, a director at Key People Limited based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, then sacked the pair without notice.

He has since been ordered to pay the couple a combined £116,597. 

Mr Atherton, a director at Key People Limited (office pictured) based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, has been ordered to pay £116,597

The tribunal heard Mrs Whitbourn, who began working for Key People Limited in 2001 as a pharmaceutical recruitment consultant, married her boss's nephew in 2016.

Jason Atherton had been appointed a sales director of the company in May 2011.

Mark Atherton, who was described as 'effectively the chairman' of the company, changed his behaviour towards Mrs Whitbourn as a 'consequence of that marriage', the hearing was told.

In November 2017, Mrs Whitbourn was told her guaranteed salary as a senior recruiter - £90,000 per year - would be removed the following year due to the company underperforming and she would be returning to 'the standard terms of your employment'.

As a result, her income was more than halved to £40,000.

In its ruling, the tribunal headed by Judge Martin Warren said: 'This does not appear to be logical or make sense given that in the previous three years Mrs Whitbourn had been provided with a guaranteed salary which was increased by £5,000 each year.'

She was also set a sales target which was the same as her colleagues, despite working fewer days - she worked four days a week.

The court heard that Mrs Whitebourn thought it should have been set at £16,000 rather than £18,000 to 'reflect the reduced hours that she worked' as her salary was also 20 per cent less than her colleagues.

In May 2018, Mrs Whitbourn formed a new company called Specialist Sourcing Group Limited using her married name.

She resigned as director six days later - before the first statement was due to Companies House.

Mrs Whitbourn was brought into a meeting and handed a formal warning for failing to 'achieve new business targets' the same year.

She then protested this in an email to her boss, arguing the minutes of the meeting did not 'show that she had stated she was being discriminated against because she is a part time female worker', the tribunal heard.

However, the company secretary and director, Norman Freed, who had been copied into the email, replied saying the claims were 'untrue and had no foundation whatsoever'.

Mr Freed first consulted Mark Atherton and then solicitors about making Jason Atherton redundant on the basis that they no longer needed a sales director.

Shortly after this, Jason Atherton listened to a recording of a telephone conversation between Mr Freed and a security company discussing having security on site, from which he learned he going to be dismissed.

He also heard his wife Mrs Whitbourn referred to as 'collateral damage' in the same conversation, which had been recorded, as all company calls were, 'for training purposes'.

Mr Atherton was then given the sack and two days later his wife was fired for starting her new company - neither were warned of their dismissal.

Mrs Whitbourn told the tribunal the company had existed for just five days and had never been active: 'It was something I did in April for five days because a very good friend of mine runs a company where she looks after homeless care staff.

'She was having trouble with recruitment and I said "oh I will help you out". I never did it, and closed it.'

She added: 'I took advice before I did it and there was absolutely no problem, no conflict of interest.'

The panel found that Mrs Whitbourn and Mr Atherton were unfairly dismissed and that Mrs Whitbourn was a victim of sex discrimination.

As Key People Ltd, based in St Albans, had been aware of her forming a limited company for two months previous to Mrs Whitbourn's dismissal, the panel said it was used as a 'convenient excuse'.

The tribunal stated: 'The reason Mrs Whitbourn was dismissed was because she was 'collateral damage' in the dismissal of her husband, Mr Jason Atherton.

'The fact that she had formed a limited company was a convenient excuse.

'We are satisfied that the principal reason for her dismissal was that she was married to Mr Atherton, who had been dismissed two days earlier.

'For some unexplained reason, Mr Atherton took a dim view of his nephew being married to Mrs Whitbourn.

'Mr Jason Atherton was not dismissed because he was redundant.'

The panel concluded that neither Mr Atherton nor Mrs Whitbourn were 'guilty of culpable and blameworthy conduct which could be said to have contributed to their dismissal'.

Mrs Whitbourn, who worked at Key People for over 17 years, won £58,657 for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.

Jason Atherton was awarded £57,940 for unfair dismissal.

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