Drugs firm worker sacked over Edinburgh Christmas party sexual harassment claim wins £23,500 unfair dismissal payout

A pharmaceutical firm worker fired over a claim he sexually harassed a female colleague at a Christmas party in Edinburgh has won £23,000 in compensation - because his company took an emailed apology as proof of his guilt.

Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 10:28 am
Updated Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 11:45 am
The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh. Picture: Eleni Laparidou

IT user support analyst James Sharp, who worked for Kyowa Kirin International, was accused of inappropriately touching the woman and making lewd comments to her following a festive lunch at The Balmoral Hotel in December 2019.

Mr Sharp said he had no memory of behaving in the way described and when specific allegations were put to him during questioning by a HR boss, he categorically denied them.

Despite having no recollection of events, Mr Sharp emailed an apology for his bosses to pass on to his colleague saying he was ashamed of his actions and that he did not believe she would make such an allegation had there been no basis to do so.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But an employment tribunal panel heard that company managers took his expression of remorse as an admission of guilt and sacked him for gross misconduct at the end of January last year.

In a judgement published online, employment judge Muriel Robinson concluded Mr Sharp had been the victim of a flawed disciplinary process and awarded him £23,500.29 in compensation for unfair dismissal.

The report said: “There was a failure to conduct a full and fair investigation and we did not accept that the claimant (Mr Sharp) got the opportunity to say what he wanted to say in explanation before the decision to uphold the allegations and to dismiss the claimant was made.

“We have concluded that dismissal in the circumstances of this case did not fall within the range of reasonable responses and that it was both substantively and procedurally unfair.”

The tribunal heard that Mr Sharp had worked for Galashiels-based pharmaceutical firm, Kyowa Kirin International, since May 2015.

The company hosted a Christmas lunch at The Balmoral Hotel on December 22, 2019 before employees went for drinks at Brewhemia bar in Market Street.

It is not stated in the report where the alleged harassment happened but the woman filed a complaint against Mr Sharp after the party.

He was accused of touching her back and lower belly, saying he was sexually aroused by taking ecstasy and insinuating something sexual with his tongue and saying to her “I’m going to f*** you up the a**.”

Mr Sharp was suspended pending an investigation into the allegations and, in the January following the Christmas holidays, a HR manager called Jen Chalmers interviewed him.

He told Ms Chalmers he could not recall any of the allegations and would never want to insult someone like that and was sorry she was upset. He was also noted as categorically denying making any of the alleged sexual remarks and said this would be “bizarre” and “out of character.”

His dismissal letter said the company believed his apology to be an “effective admission.”

But he submitted during the tribunal that he had not intended his apology to be taken as an admission, except to the extent he was admitting to taking alcohol and to having hugged his female colleague, as others were doing given the festive spirit.

The report also highlighted arguments by Mr Sharp’s lawyer, his father, who questioned the sufficiency of evidence upon which the firm’s decision was made, on the basis of witness statements they had gathered did not corroborate the allegations.

He said the company “dismissed out of hand the probability, even the possibility” that the woman had misheard or misinterpreted what he may have said, and that no alternative explanations or probable words were put to her.

The suggestion was that because the female colleague was from another country and her first language was not English, she could have misunderstood both what was said and its meaning.

The report also highlighted that the emailed apology from Mr Sharp was delayed in being passed on to his female colleague and that this was a “serious error of judgement” by the company.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/subscriptions.