Grenfell Tower Intervention Council officers accused of “skipping work to sleep together” win sexual harassment case
A senior accountant and his young colleague won a sexual harassment case after a management colleague told colleagues they skipped work to sleep together.
Francis Austin had personally recruited Monika Newton to join his finance team supporting the Kensington and Chelsea Council response to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
But an employment tribunal has heard that his arrival has upset his deputy Lesley Shields, who has become suspicious that they are “slipping” to spend time together.
READ MORE: LFB boss warned ministers of ‘significant’ fire risk ahead of Grenfell disaster
She openly suggested to her colleagues that the couple were sleeping together and when they went out for a date they told one of them that they must have been to the hotel before adding: “She sucks her **** pretty much now “.
Mr Austin and Ms Newton complained about Ms Shields’ comments and then – following the termination of their contracts – successfully sued the local authority.
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They are now awaiting compensation.
The central London court heard that Oxford-trained Mr Austin joined the local authority with an ongoing contract as deputy chief financial officer in March 2017.
Under his contract he was paid £ 650 per day, the equivalent of an annual salary of over £ 150,000.
In June of that year, the Grenfell Tower fire claimed the lives of 72 people and Mr Austin was appointed chief financial officer for the team tasked with the council’s response to the tragedy.
Ms Shields – the group’s accountant on the board – was his assistant, the court heard.
In the fall of 2019, the audience was told that tensions were growing between the two men over the slowness with which the team’s work was being completed.
At the same time, Mr Austin met Ms Newton – an experienced project manager with whom he had previously worked – to discuss joining the team to help with a disaster-related ‘heritage housing’ project.
The court heard that without leave he had hired Ms Newton on a short-term contract of £ 450 a day, equivalent to over £ 100,000 a year.
On Ms Newton’s first day in November, the court heard Ms Shields tell her new colleague that she was unhappy with the way she had been appointed and that she was not convinced her role was necessary.
Ms Shields – who felt under increasing professional pressure – told the court that Mr Austin’s behavior changed after Ms Newton’s appointment.
“He arrived late for work and got home early, and often took Ms. Newton for lunch,” she said. “There were grunts from the team about how little work Mr. Austin was doing.
“Mr. Austin was going to all of Mrs. Newton’s meetings when he didn’t need to.”
The hearing was told that shortly after arriving, Ms Shields called Ms Newton about her colleagues a “c ***” and a “bitch.”
Ms Shields told the hearing that on November 29, Mr Austin and Ms Shields arrived late for work and then went to lunch together.
“She said they gathered their bags and coats at 1:45 p.m. and Ms Shields asked where they were going,” the court said. “They said they were going to the Tower.
Mrs. Shields asked why and they said they were going to (a meeting) and Mrs. Newton wanted to see the tower. Mrs. Shields looked at (the) newspaper which did not show such a meeting.
Ms. Shields said she was frustrated as she thought they were dodging the job. They didn’t need to go to the tower. They could have done the round trip in an hour but they weren’t. income.
“The whole team was under pressure, but they seemed to waste time and money. She herself worked evenings and weekends and was under pressure to meet budget deadlines and had personal issues.
“She said people were commenting and chatting about Ms. Newton and Mr. Austin’s movements.
“Ms. Shields agreed to say something like, ‘she (Ms. Newton) sucks his (Mr. Austin’s) cock about now” to (a co-worker). She said she regretted it. immediately and apologized. “
Chief Financial Officer Ronica Barard told the hearing Ms Shields initially approached the bank of offices where she and others were seated and said Mr Austin had nothing in his diary, so she didn’t know where they were.
“She said they had to have a hotel room,” Ms Barard told court. “About half an hour later, Mrs. Shields approached the offices again and said, ‘She must be sucking his cock right now. “
Over the following months, tensions between the trio escalated.
In January 2020, following an argument with Ms Newton, the court heard that Ms Shields had warned her, “Don’t walk away from me, girl.”
And Mr Austin began to believe his deputy was conspiring with co-workers to deliberately slow down their pace of work in order to extend their own contracts, it was said at the hearing.
Upon learning that Ms Shields had told colleagues she suspected an affair, Ms Newton complained to Mr Austin: “This is sexual harassment in the workplace and therefore extremely distressing, derogatory and offensive.”
The council launched an investigation which led to Ms Shields being warned of her behavior.
But he dismissed Mr Austin’s claims that she was working slowly on purpose.
Finding that the housing legacy project was unnecessary, the local authority decided not to extend Ms Newton’s contract beyond the end of March 2020.
And the following month, Mr. Austin was told his job was being laid off as well.
The couple took the advice to court on charges of sex discrimination, victimization and that they had been abused for whistleblowing.
The panel – chaired by labor judge Natasha Joffe – dismissed the other allegations, but agreed Ms Shields’ remarks to her colleagues were sexual harassment.
“(His) goal seems to have been to voice his frustrations over Mr Austin and Ms Newton to his colleagues,” he said.
Alleging that they had “sex rather than work” would have “violated their dignity” and created a “humiliating environment” for them, he said.
“The extreme vitriol involved in describing a coworker as a ‘c ***’ arose, we concluded, from the particular level of resentment created by the combination of factors we identified, including perception … that Mr. Austin and Mrs. Newton may be having an affair. “
The panel said unless the couple and council themselves come to an agreement, a new hearing will be held next year to determine compensation.
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