You might think people at law firms would know better. Apparently not...
In a recent case before the Employment Appeal Tribunal in London, a female employee of a law firm in Suffolk claimed that gossip about her pregnancy following the firm's Christmas party in 2007 constituted sex discrimination.
The claimant, Sarah Nixon, worked at the Ipswich branch of Ross Coates Solicitors. In early December 2007 she was 33 and in a relationship with Wayne Perrin, a solicitor at the firm. She was pregnant by him, leading to the birth of their son on 7 September 2008.
By the time of the firm's Christmas party on 22 December, however, she did not know this.
She got very drunk at the party and people noticed her "flirtatiously kissing" the firm's IT manager, Ben Wright. The couple left the party together and secured a hotel room (paid for by the firm) where, according to Mr Wright, they retired and had "unprotected sex".
Fast forward a few weeks and Ms Nixon told her employer that she was pregnant. Within an hour, the firm's HR manager Debbie O'Hara began gossiping and spreading rumours about her pregnancy and about the father of the child.
Predictably, Ms Nixon was very upset and embarrassed by the gossip, and asked if she could transfer to the firm's other office in Kesgrave. The firm's managing partners rejected the request.
Ms Nixon decided she could no longer work alongside Ms O'Hara and filed a formal grievance. She said the firm had allowed Ms O'Hara to spread rumours about her "without any form of reprimand or disciplinary action". She also complained that her relocation request was refused seemingly without consideration.
Because of her absence from the workplace, she was not paid for the month of February. In March, she resigned and commenced legal action for constructive unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, and harassment.
At first instance, the tribunal dismissed her claims for discrimination and harassment. While it upheld her claim for constructive unfair dismissal, it reduced her compensation by 90% because of "contributory fault".
In a written judgement, the tribunal explained: "In so deciding, we take the view that she was almost exclusively the author of her own misfortune by the events which unfolded by her foolhardy behaviour at the end of the office party. It is not for us to judge her moral perception and we do not do so. Yet, the reduction we apply derives because of her contribution to what happened by acting so publicly, so foolishly and so irresponsibly."
On appeal, the office gossip was adjudged to be "unwanted" and "caused [Ms Nixon] embarrassment and upset" and, therefore, amounted to harassment on the grounds of pregnancy and sex. Turning down her Kesgrave relocation request was likewise deemed to be for a reason related to her pregnancy and was thus discriminatory.
The appellate judges also disagreed with the 90% reduction in compensation for constructive unfair dismissal and said the tribunal panel had let its view of the claimant's conduct at the Christmas party affect its judgment.
The case will now return to the same tribunal for an assessment of damages for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal.