Former HMRC customer service advisor wins discrimination claim

A former customer service advisor has successfully sued HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for discrimination and harassment after she developed rheumatoid arthritis.

According to the report, published by industry publication People Management, Stephanie Pemberton had worked for the tax regulator in its customer service department since 2008. However, the woman took an extended sickness absence in 2016 due to her developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Upon returning to work, Ms Pemberton was handed a “workplace adjustment passport” which was updated every six months to reflect her level of disability, which included physical difficulty typing, needing a mobility scooter to get around and often dealing with pain and fatigue.

In 2018, a manager noted that Ms Pemberton had engaged in a “loud and emotional” phone call with her husband at her desk, for which she was asked to refrain from doing so in the future.

But in the following months, HMRC’s reasonable adjustments support team (RAST) noted “behavioural concerns” during periods when the advisor’s condition worsened, with one RAST member writing that she “can become lively when there is a flare-up”.

After becoming aware of these descriptions of her condition, Ms Pemberton took HMRC to an employment tribunal.

While the tribunal dismissed all but one complaint on the grounds that HMRC had not been given opportunity to discuss the grievances and follow proper procedure, the Judge upheld the “complaint of discrimination and harassment” in regard to the word “lively”.

The Judge said the words used in the description of Ms Pemberton were “demeaning and belittling of her and her condition”.

Commenting on the case, Ms Pemberton told People Management: “I fought tooth and nail – as a result policies were reviewed and implemented within my department, albeit after I had left, and although I don’t feel particularly altruistic, HMRC will think before they act in future.”

An HMRC spokesperson said: “We want HMRC to be a positive, respect-filled workplace where we can all reach our potential, deliver the best outcomes for the public and where the experience for all our people is a good one. Where we fall below these standards, we will seek to address the issues.”

HMRC was ordered to pay Ms Pemberton £4,000 plus interest for injury to feelings.