Woman told not to let 'hormones get out of control' wins age discrimination case

·5-min read
Board room
Board room

A middle-aged woman regarded as "menopausal" by her younger male boss has won an age discrimination case after being told not to let her hormones get "out of control", an employment tribunal has heard.

Louise McCabe, then 55, was told by Jack Williams, a tech chief executive, to "calm down, don't let the hormones get out of control" during a "heated exchange" at a company meeting. She is now in line for compensation for age discrimination and unfair dismissal.

The tribunal judge found that the 29-year-old entrepreneur viewed older people as "not familiar" with the IT business and viewed Mrs McCabe, a finance director, as a "menopausal woman".

After Mrs McCabe raised concerns over how employees at the e-commerce firm were treated, he stripped her of her role as company director and subsequently fired her.

Mrs McCabe, now 57, who was a founding director and shareholder at tech start-up Selazar in 2014, will be compensated after the judge found that Mr Williams "would not have said this to a younger person". Mr Williams denied making the comments.

The start-up - which has offices in Belfast and Leicester - offers retailers help with their business through AI software and assists with the distribution of goods.

In January 2020, the tribunal was told that Mrs McCabe infuriated the company's chief technology officer and co-founder, Gareth Burns, when she emailed a customer: "I know that talking to techies can get frustrating at times, especially when there is a feeling that they aren't listening.

"Their brains are wired differently to us more practically minded people (not that I am as practical as you and they drive me mad at times, so I can only guess at how you feel!!)".

'Massive slap in the face'

Mr Burns complained to Mr Williams that the comments were "insulting and disrespectful", and that the email had been a "massive slap in the face", leading Mrs McCabe to formally apologise.

The tribunal heard that in April that year she warned Mr Williams about making unrealistic sales projections to the company's investors amid a budget that showed the firm losing £500,000 that year.

At an executive meeting the following month, Mr Burns complained about the performance of one of Mrs McCabe's team and described her department as "dysfunctional" and a "shambles", before calling on her to "step up to the mark". Mrs McCabe was making notes of the meeting, the hearing was told.

"(She) recorded that she replied that she only had one pair of hands," the tribunal heard. "She then recorded that Mr Williams said, 'Calm down.. don’t let the hormones get out of control'."

Although Mr Williams denied saying this, the tribunal concluded he had, noting that Mrs McCabe said she believed he "would not have said this to a younger person".

Over the next few months, Mrs McCabe raised a series of concerns about the mental health of the team member who Mr Burns had criticised, saying that he had been "pushed too hard for someone so young".

In a "position paper" delivered on July 9, she defended the employee and accused the executive team of denying him a much-needed holiday.

'Younger member more in tune with a young tech company'

Five days later, the tribunal heard Mr Williams asked permission of one of the firm's investors to remove her from her role as a director while she was on holiday.

When she complained about this on her return, he told her the company had lost confidence in her, that being a director was a "privilege" and that she was being placed on gardening leave.

Mrs McCabe told the hearing that in August she was phoned by a recruitment consultant who told her "in embarrassment" that he had been instructed by Mr Williams to find "a younger team member who was more in tune with a young tech start company".

The next month she raised a formal grievance about her treatment and claimed she had been targeted for raising concerns about the treatment of staff.

The tribunal also heard that an investigation by the firm found that over the summer Mrs McCabe had sent more than 500 emails and documents from the company to her private email address.

In late September, she was dismissed for sharing confidential information with one of the company's investors when she sent him a copy of her grievance.

'Mr Williams viewed Mrs McCabe as an older woman'

Concluding that Mrs McCabe had been the victim of age discrimination by Mr Williams, Judge Jillian Brown said: "On all the evidence, the Tribunal decided that it could conclude that at least part of the reason for (her) dismissal was her age.

"(Selazar) had asked (the recruitment consultant) to look for a younger person for the finance department; Mr Williams viewed (Mrs McCabe) as an older woman; Mr Williams considered that older people were not familiar with IT businesses."

Ruling that she had also been unfairly dismissed, the Tribunal concluded that the main reason for her sacking was her raising concerns about the treatment of her team member and her rebuttal of Mr Burns' criticism of him.

"The immediate background to Mr Williams’ determination to dismiss (Mrs McCabe) was considerable animosity from Mr Burns towards (her)," the tribunal found.

"In executive meetings on Mr Burns had made accusations in trenchant terms about (her) department and about (her team member's) competence.

"(Mrs McCabe's) position paper had disproven Mr Burns’ criticism of (the team member). The position paper had said that (he) had gone off work, sick, due to his treatment by the Company.

"The Tribunal considered that (her) position paper had made clear that Mr Burns had been responsible for denying (the team member's) holiday and for the pressure (he) felt that he was under.

"The Tribunal inferred that the primary reason in Mr Williams’ mind for deciding that (she) would be dismissed was (her) protected disclosures about Mr Ross, contained in her position paper."

A hearing to determine the level of compensation Mrs McCabe will receive will take place at a later date.