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£8k: Equality body stung for sex bias in workplace

The statutory body set up to police equality of opportunity in the workplace has been found in breach of sex discrimination laws.

An industrial tribunal has ordered the Equality Commission to pay more than £8,000 in damages to a female employee who was not allowed to return to work after taking a career break.

Solicitor Elizabeth Kennedy took the case after her post was permanently filled by a man.

In a damning indictment of the publicly-funded body, the panel stated: "Without, at this stage, going into the legal implications, the respondent's actions seem at best grossly unfair. An employee in such circumstances was entitled to be given a proper explanation of her circumstances so that she could at least seek alternative employment.

"For an employer that holds itself out as an exemplar of fairness, this was extraordinary behaviour."

The tribunal recommended that the Equality Commission:

Immediately reviews the operation and wording of its career break and contractual redundancy policies.

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Immediately determines the implications of the proper application of both policies for the claimant.

Mrs Kennedy took a five-year career break. In late 2008 she was due to return from maternity leave but because of health concerns about her child opted for a career break in 2009, which was approved by her employer.

Just three months later her post was permanently filled by a man. However, she was not informed of this until December 2013 - despite her confirming her intention to return to work in September 2013.

The panel noted: "There was no reply from the respondent to that letter telling her that she would not, in fact, be returning to work.

"However, it seems clear from the respondent's evidence, particularly that relating to other career breakers who had not been permitted to return, that the respondent would have known at that stage that the claimant was not going to be permitted to return to work as indicated by her, or indeed at all.

"It seems extraordinary, as a matter of basic fairness, that this was not made plain to the claimant even at this late stage."

It has also emerged that as of August 15, 2014, nine career breakers including the claimant have not been allowed to return to work at the Equality Commission.

Of those nine, one has resigned, one has taken flexible early severance and one has taken flexible early retirement. The remaining six had been without work, pay or a compulsory redundancy payment for periods of between seven to 64 months. Three have since agreed to take a voluntary severance payment. Three, including the claimant, have not.

Mrs Kennedy was offered £6,000 in voluntary severance.

Commenting on the findings, the Equality Commission said it was "disappointed that a decision of the industrial tribunal has found aspects of the commission's career break policy to be indirectly discriminatory".

The statement continued: "The commission defended the claim in good faith and on the basis of legal advice and is currently giving careful consideration to the tribunal's decision."

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