Curtin&Co found guilty of discriminating against former employee on maternity leave

An employment tribunal has ruled that the public affairs consultancy discriminated against a former employee and whistleblower while she was taking maternity leave, including providing false assurances that her job was safe. However, several other claims, including unfair dismissal, were dismissed.

Curtin&Co's former finance director, Sanja Veselinovic
Curtin&Co's former finance director, Sanja Veselinovic

Sanja Veselinovic, a former finance director of Curtin&Co, had been placed into a redundancy consultation while taking maternity leave in 2019.

A tribunal hearing, led by Employment Judge Stout and tribunal members Frederick Benson and Georgina Carpenter, dismissed claims Veselinovic had been unfairly dismissed on grounds of sexual discrimination or materntity leave, but agreed the consultancy had breached the Equalities Act on several counts by discriminating against Veselinovic for exercising her right to maternity leave.

This included giving Veselinovic false assurances that her job was safe ahead of going on maternity leave; denying her access to HR files; and requiring her to sit at a different desk upon her return.

She was also subject to other detriments, including being notified while on maternity leave that she would need to attend a redundancy consultation; denying her access to her maternity cover’s email; and “creating a false or exaggerated case in order to conceal the real reason for the Claimant's selection for redundancy” by the decision that Veselinovic’s “duties could allegedly be dispersed to other colleagues”.

Curtin&Co began a management buyout of its founder Tom Curtin shortly after Veselinovic, a shareholder at the time, went on maternity leave.

Veselinovic, who blew the whistle on an expenses claim involving current managing director Catherine Senda, said she was never invited to be part of the MBO, a claim that was accepted in Judge Stout’s tribunal hearing ruling.

Two days before she was due to return from maternity leave, Veselinovic was informed that she would be part of a redundancy consultation process and “did not need to return to the office”.

Veselinovic told PRWeek that the treatment she received on maternity leave had left her “tearful for days”.

“I just couldn't sleep and it really affected my mental health and physical health. I just could not believe that somebody I've been working with for eight years could behave like that,” she said. “The way they treated me when I returned was totally out of order.”

“They wanted to get rid of me because of Senda’s animosity towards me,” Veselinovic claimed. “You will see in the judgment that the judge found Mrs Senda had committed criminal offences with forged receipts in paragraph 180, and as I was the whistleblower, the judge ruled that these detriments were accepted.”

PRWeek asked Curtin&Co to respond to the hearing and specific claims that Veselinovic had been discriminated against on maternity leave, given false reassurances about her job security, and was treated poorly and unethically upon her return.

Curtin&Co told PRweek that the majority of her claims had been dismissed, as noted in the judgement on pages 82-83.

The consultancy said in a statement: “The Company took extensive HR and legal advice throughout the redundancy process and the Tribunal has found that the redundancy was genuine and there was no unfair dismissal. Nor was there any sex discrimination or discrimination on the grounds of the taking of maternity leave, nor as a result of protected disclosures dating back to 2012.

“Unfortunately a small number of detriments were deemed to have been made and the Company may be held liable for these. The Company values its staff highly and takes every effort to work with them in a fair, co-operative and positive manner.”

Tom Curtin’s take

Veselinovic’s case has been supported by company founder Tom Curtin (pictured above). Curtin sold the business through an MBO in 2019. It was acquired by Catherine Senda (managing director), Nick Stanton (managing director), Paul Harvey (director), and Steve Carey (director).

Curtin told PRWeek he had encouraged Veselinovic to pursue a hearing.

“I said to Sanja at the time: ‘Watch out, you might not be flavour of the month,’” he said. “I encouraged her to take it to tribunal… They didn't agree with everything she said, but they did say she was discriminated against because of maternity.”

When pressed on the reasons why Veselinovic may have been discriminated against, Curtin said he believed it was because she had supported him when others in the management team wanted to take the business in a different direction before the MBO.

He said he also believed Veselinovic blowing the whistle on an expenses row involving Senda – where Senda eventually paid back hundred of pounds in missing company funds – could have played a role.

Curtin said he has been “shocked” by the behaviour of senior executives at his former consultancy, particularly as some had been “forgiven for their mistakes in the past’.

He told PRWeek: “They behaved like the worst form of capitalism… if this happened in Wall Street, you would think it’s appalling.”

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