Employee asked to keep her Sexuality a Secret by Employer

The Equality Act 2010 (EA) is the key piece of legislation relating to discrimination at work. Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under this act and applies equally to discrimination, harassment and victimisation of heterosexual people as to discrimination and harassment of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people.


The recent case of McMahon v Redwood TTM Limited and Pilling demonstrated this – where a UK Employment Tribunal ordered the employer to pay a former employee the sum of £8,000 (plus interest), as an injury to feelings award. 


About the case


The lesbian employee, Ashleigh McMahon, was a quality control manager at Redwood TTM, a Lancashire based textiles firm. During the first week of her new job, she disclosed that she was gay to her boss, Mr Pilling, where he then told her to keep quiet. This was due to the fact that the company did not have any other gay people working for it and because the owner of the business was described as ‘old school’.


Despite making her feel incredibly uncomfortable, the employee complied with this request as she feared the possible repercussions. She alleged that the managing director’s request to keep her sexuality a secret caused her to want to cancel her ticket to the company’s Christmas party. 

She claimed she would feel uncomfortable attending a social event where she could not discuss elements of her private life.


After less than a year at the company the claimant, along with others, was made redundant. Following this termination, McMahon made a number of claims against the company, including a claim of automatic unfair dismissal for a health and safety reason and for making a protected disclosure, as well as direct and indirect discrimination claims. 


Despite the majority being unanimously rejected by the tribunal, they did find in her favour in respect of her complaint that the managing director had asked her not to reveal her sexual orientation at work. It was concluded that a hypothetical comparator who was not gay would not have been asked to keep their sexuality secret. Therefore, the tribunal found that the managing director’s request amounted to direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. 


Advice to employers


As an employer, it is very important to take into consideration that all employees – irrespective of their length of service – are protected from discrimination. Therefore, all managers and directors need to lead by example and promote the importance of treating everyone in the workplace with dignity and respect. 

If an employee raises a complaint that they have been discriminated against or harassed, this needs to be dealt with promptly, sensitively and appropriately. Employers should have up to date equal opportunities policies detailing the business’ approach to equal opportunities and setting out what is and what is not acceptable. Any new employees should also be taken through the organisation’s equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies as part of their induction. 

If you require some employment law advice, and would like to have a chat with a specialist, please feel free to get in touch with Nationwide Employment Lawyers. You can either give us a call on 020 8263 6080, or complete the contact form on our website. Include all of your relevant information and someone will get back to you as soon as possible.