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Age discrimination and employee promotions – £96k awarded

7 December 2022

An employment tribunal has ruled that a former clothes designer was unfairly dismissed and subjected to age discrimination, after management continuously overlooked her for a promotion, despite receiving excellent performance reviews.

Ms R Sunderland, who was employed by clothing giant Superdry, has been awarded over £96,000 in compensation following the tribunal’s decision in late July.

Not only does this case demonstrate the importance of being clear and transparent when managing performance, it also highlights the continued prominence of age discrimination claims in the employment tribunal.

We are partners of AHR Consultants, specialists in HR and employment law, who have summarised the impact of this case below.

Case – Ms R Sunderland v Superdry plc

When the claimant, Ms Sunderland, joined Superdry in 2015, there was no hierarchal system in place for the clothes design team.

However, the culture evolved throughout her five years of service at the company, and a hierarchy was eventually introduced across most teams.

Despite often receiving positive feedback during performance reviews, Sunderland was never once considered for a promotion within her team, specifically for the role of Lead Designer.

Sunderland felt she had been misled by management, especially due to the heavy workload she had taken on during 2019 when covering for a colleague that was on maternity leave.

Raising these concerns did little to help Sunderland’s case, with management claiming that she lacked experience of managing others and was therefore unsuited to the Lead Designer role.

After seeing younger colleagues receive promotions despite having little or no management experience of their own, Sunderland resigned from her position at Superdry and raised a claim in the employment tribunal.

Age discrimination and the Equality Act 2010

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are prohibited from discriminating against any employee on the grounds of their age. This includes direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation.

Any instance where an employee is overlooked for a promotion due to their age is considered direct age discrimination, unless the employer is able to provide a specific justification for their decision.

This is just one of the many areas in which age discrimination claims are becoming prominent, along with recruitment and redundancy exercises.

Decision – Unfair dismissal and direct age discrimination

After hearing Sunderland’s case, the tribunal ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed by Superdry due to extensive evidence of unfair treatment, which eventually amounted to direct age discrimination.

The judge stated that Sunderland had “every reason to anticipate a promotion” after receiving excellent feedback for taking on the heavy workload left by a pregnant colleague.

This reinforced the suggestion that Sunderland had been misled by management, with the judge adding that Sunderland had not been given a “clear and satisfactory reason” as to why she wasn’t promoted.

Had this reason been given, it was believed that Sunderland would have been able to establish realistic development targets, allowing her to work towards a promotion within the team.

Additionally, the tribunal ruled that Superdry had failed to consider the impact of Sunderland’s heavy workload on her wellbeing, made worse by incidents in which colleagues were describing her in terms that “verged on abuse”.

Following the success of Sunderland’s claim, she was awarded a total of £96,208 in compensation.

What can employers learn from this?

This case highlights the importance of adopting a fair and transparent approach when conducting performance reviews and making decisions about a potential promotion.

Failing to communicate a clear reason for your decision without evidence relating to ability, could leave you exposed to various types of discrimination claims, including those on the grounds of age.

It’s also important that anyone responsible for making decisions on promotions or recruitment is trained on Managing Equality and Discrimination.

Not only will this improve their awareness of potential issues, but it will also help you to establish a defence should a discrimination claim be raised against your organisation.

Source: AHR Consultants

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