Teen’s bullying claims rejected by job tribunal

Robyn Preston
Robyn Preston
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A teenager who tried to take an overdose of painkillers blamed bullying at work.

Robyn Preston was saved when her mother found her swallowing paracetamol, an employment tribunal was told.

Gienette Jefferson -Cobb and Nigel Meredith with the Duchess of Northumberland who opened their hairdressing salon the  Alnwick Studio joined by the stylists.

Gienette Jefferson -Cobb and Nigel Meredith with the Duchess of Northumberland who opened their hairdressing salon the Alnwick Studio joined by the stylists.

But after a six-day hearing, the tribunal has rejected nearly all her complaints against the Alnwick Studio hairdressing salon.

An allegation of sexual harassment against proprietor Nigel Meredith was partially upheld, relating to one remark he had made to her.

Miss Preston, 19, was diagnosed with reactive depression after the tablet incident. Her mother Suzanne said the family doctor had urged her not to let her daughter return to her job as receptionist and front-of-house manager.

Salon owners Nigel and Gienette Meredith contested the claims of sexual harassment, unfair and constructive dismissal, and late payment of wages.

The tribunal at Newcastle heard the bubbly teenager, from Belford, had been brought to her lowest ebb by working there. Her parents said they had put their life savings into bringing the case.

It was said the final straw came on May 22 last year, when her sister, Kelly Preston, was to collect Robyn from an after-work sunbed session, but found she had not turned up. Calls to her mobile went unanswered and when driving around frantically looking for her, Kelly saw the salon apparently closed.

Their father Graeme joined the search and the family was about to call the police when Robyn appeared, in tears, walking towards her sister’s car, the hearing was told. Robyn told the tribunal she had been called to a meeting upstairs with the couple at which they said her job was at risk and forbade her to answer her repeatedly-ringing phone.

This account was denied by the employers, who said they had met for 16 minutes in the salon and she had chosen not to answer the phone. They produced a till receipt from Sainsbury’s to show they were shopping at 6.36pm and said she had left work before 6pm and in good spirits.

The tribunal says the receipt confirms Miss Preston must have left by 6pm.

“We had real concerns about the reliability of the claimant’s evidence on a number of issues,” it says.

The three members found her “unduly emotional at times when giving her evidence” and “were concerned that if she was treated as badly as she alleges, we would have expected her to have complained or at least mentioned it to her family and close friends at the time”. They went on: “We formed the view that the claimant had a tendency to exaggerate or overdramatise events, or to interpret events afterwards in a way which was inaccurate.”

Her sister told the hearing: “I knew there was something wrong with her for months and months and months, because the confident, happy, bubbly person she is. She just became withdrawn. She wouldn’t go out and she was in a right state. She told me a lot of things that night on the way home and said, ‘I don’t want to be here any more’.”

The tribunal members said Mr Meredith was not a particularly satisfactory witness either, but their criticisms did not seriously undermine his reliability on disputes of fact.

The Alnwick Studio opened in July 2010, billed as an upmarket salon. Mrs Meredith, a colourist, spent 16 years at Wella and was its trainer of the year.

Her husband has 34 years’ experience in hairdressing, 17 at Wella, where he managed more than 40 staff, most of them women.

Mr Meredith told his solicitor, Zahir Qayum, they had wanted Miss Preston to succeed. “We saw potential in her. Robyn failed to reach minimum standards we set for her and unfortunately, we had to address this for capability.” They said she had neglected her duties while texting friends and chatting with staff.

After criticism, she had improved and they had promoted her.

Mr Meredith, 49, denied he had an unhealthy interest in the teenager and sabotaged two weekends with her boyfriend. The couple also challenged evidence from Miss Preston’s mother and sister that when collecting her, they were routinely kept waiting half an hour. The tribunal says she did not complain and it cannot see why she would be kept after the till was locked.

After receiving her sick note, the couple sent the family a letter, making what Miss Preston’s barrister Geoffrey Knowles described as a sinister threat.

It said: “There are confidences and conversations that have taken place that we would not wish to expose and betray. However, they have so much bearing on the situation that they could not remain confidences, were a court to demand full disclosure of events.”

Mr Meredith said no threat had been intended. “The confidences we have held for her we would expect the parents to do for us.” The tribunal says this was “a very unwise letter to write”, but a response to what they saw as a threat to the salon, after Kelly allegedly said she would contact its clients.

Soon after resigning last June, Miss Preston was offered a maternity cover job by Newcastle Building Society, but the offer was withdrawn after Mr Meredith sent what Mr Knowles called a “damning reference”. It also revealed her illness without her permission. A job offer at a Northumberland hotel was withdrawn too and she was still out of work months later.

The tribunal says the reference “was consciously designed, in our view, to ensure that the claimant did not get the job”. It was “arguably libellous”, but had followed her resignation rather than caused it.

Mr Meredith was said to have made coarse comments about her body, which he denied. Once, when she was going away with her boyfriend Kevin Potts, Miss Preston said, Mr Meredith’s farewell had been: “Try to keep your knickers on – I know it’s hard for you.” He said he had used an expression favoured by his mother: “Keep your hand on your halfpenny and pin your knickers to your vest.”

The tribunal says: “The import of what was being said was that the claimant should not have sex with her boyfriend. It was a remark which should not have been made, even if it was made in jest, and it is relevant to consider the considerable difference in ages.”

The tribunal accepts this remark was sexual harassment and has ordered the salon to compensate Miss Preston for hurt feelings. She has also been awarded two weeks’ pay for shortcomings in her contract.

Petite Miss Preston, who came second in the Miss Northumberland beauty contest while working at the salon, alleged she was taunted about her appearance and said the couple would sing the Queen song Fat Bottomed Girls around her. They described that suggestion as ludicrous.

Former stylist Tracey McCready, with 32 years in the trade, believed Miss Preston was expected to do “too much for one person” and said she had seen her being shouted at. The tribunal says Miss McCready and the couple had fallen out and she was not present when the main events occurred.

The couple criticised Miss Preston’s cash handling, though not her honesty, and said the till was about £200 down over three months. She said she was always blamed, though others had access to the till. Three times she had cashed up and taken the money home with no discrepancy.

The tribunal heard tributes to Miss Preston from salon customers. One wrote: “She can cheer up the dullest of days.” Another said she had become fond of her and something was missing after she had left.

Miss Preston told the tribunal: “The treatment that I received from the Merediths has, I know, had a major effect on my personality. I was always the life and soul of the party, I was very positive and motivated. That’s all changed now. I feel even though I have left Alnwick Studio, I have lost control over my life.”

Speaking after the result , Nigel Meridith said: “Alnwick Studio, the owners and all the team are delighted that this very upsetting and difficult situation has finally come to a conclusion.

“Alnwick Studio is a wonderful place to work as demonstrated by most of our team having been with us from opening the business nearly three years ago.

“We are delighted and extremely grateful for the support received from each of the team, their families and many customers during this very difficult process.”