Vodafone worker wins £30,000 after boss asked, 'how do lesbians have sex?'

A Vodafone phone store on Oxford Street, central London.
A gay Vodafone worker has been awarded £30,000 in compensation in a sex discrimination case. (File photo: PA)

A gay Vodafone store worker has won £30,000 in compensation after a male manager asked her, "how do lesbians have sex?"

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and is known only as Ms C, sued her former employers after she said senior staff "humiliated" her by asking "sexually explicit questions".

An employment tribunal in Glasgow heard she endured a series of comments from staff at a Vodafone store in a Scottish town about her sexual orientation in the three months after she started working there, between October 2021 and January 2022.

She was hired as a sales assistant at the store for a Vodafone franchise called Thistle Communications.

Ms C eventually resigned and has now successfully sued for sex and sexual orientation discrimination and harassment.

In one incident, she said senior manager Bilal Shahid - known as Billy - asked her, "How do lesbians have sex then, I’m intrigued," the tribunal heard.

The woman said: "I told him I wasn’t going to answer that question, and he asked me again after a customer left."

Ms C told the tribunal that Shahid said to her: “I mean I think it’s great, you’re a lesbian but I can’t imagine having this conversation with a gay guy.”

A gay Vodafone worker's discrimination case was heard at Glasgow Tribunals Centre. (Google)
A gay Vodafone worker's discrimination case was heard at Glasgow Tribunals Centre. (Google)

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The tribunal heard another manager, Matthew Graham, told her she looked like a "normal lassie" when "referring to her sexuality", which she said she interpreted to mean that being gay was unusual.

He was also overheard saying, "that’s a waste", when referring to a gay woman, the panel was told.

Graham told the woman she was not "financially driven" because she did not have children. He also asked her, "what's a fag hag?"

The tribunal was told Graham said: “Love who you want to love but when it comes to affecting my child, I don’t think LGBT should be taught in schools."

Ms C complained about the incidents before going off sick, citing stress caused by her job, and later resigned.

She said the franchise company "chose not to reprimand or stamp out that kind of terminology or behaviour".

She told the tribunal: “I don't think they have taken seriously the damage this has caused to my mental health.

"I don't feel safe to return to an environment which humiliated me, alienated me and has made me need to seek counselling. This has cost me months of my life.

"I have endured those comments from start to finish in that employment and it has made me feel like irreparable damage has been caused, I have never been humiliated like that.

"Being asked to describe the inner workings of my sexual orientation to a grown man, whilst he smiles at me when asking, was so disturbing and I’ve never been so over-sexualised in my personal life or working career.

"No other woman was asked that or subjected to the comments around their orientation, only me, because I am gay. I don’t think I will ever feel safe or comfortable enough now to disclose my sexuality to another employer."

She had emailed Vodafone's LGBT email address to highlight her concerns before going off sick, and then emailed Thistle Communications managing director Michael McDade in November 2021 to tell him about "homophobic comments" and other "inappropriate behaviours".

He replied to her email and said: "100% I want to get to the bottom of this."

Ms C went off sick two months after starting her job and remained off for several weeks before she resigned from her position, having worked at the store for 15 weeks, the tribunal heard.

She then sued the company for discrimination, harassment and unfair dismissal.

The employment tribunal ruled that being asked about her sex life was discrimination and that she had been a victim of harassment on the basis of her gender and sexual orientation.

A branded sign is displayed on a Vodafone  store in London, Britain May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall
A gay worker at a Vodafone store said she was "humiliated" by comments from senior staff. (File photo: Reuters)

But her unfair dismissal claim failed as she had not been employed for long enough.

Employment judge Ian McPherson said: "It is to be hoped that, arising from this case, lessons have been learned... about the importance of working relationships within the workplace, the need to avoid discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace.

"It seems to us that there are many issues arising from this case, and what support, if any, the franchisor makes available to employees of franchisees as regards LGBT+ support."

Thistle Communications was ordered to pay a total of £30,000 in compensation to Ms C.

The award included £25,000 for injury to feelings, £1,100 for financial loss and £2,600 for the firm's failure to follow approved workplace procedures.

Since the tribunal case was brought, Thistle Communications has gone into liquidation.