Sexual `banter' led to dismissal of manager

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An insurance company branch where a manager is alleged to have harassed three women enjoyed a relaxed atmosphere where banter was freely exchanged, an industrial tribunal was told yesterday.

Helen Gower, counsel for the manager, Michael Jennings, who is claiming unfair dismissal, said many of the staff at the Prudential office in south- east London enjoyed trading personal comments among themselves.

The tribunal in Croydon, south London, has heard allegations that Mr Jennings, 47, harassed three women at the branch. They cannot be named for legal reasons.

Ms Gower said boards erected on office walls to celebrate 25 years' service to the company by Mr Jennings included references to his appearance. Among suggestions displayed for a possible retirement job was that he promoted slimming regimes. He appreciated the humour as harmless fun, she said.

One of the women, a 17-year-old trainee, complained of being bombarded with gifts from Mr Jennings, including perfume, a ring, and a note asking her to marry him, the tribunal was told.

She became depressed at his unwanted attention, losing interest in her appearance and failing to wash her hair or change her clothes. She confided in other members of staff, Tony McDonald, the personnel manager who investigated the harassment claims, told the tribunal.

He said he had rejected claims that the woman was fomenting discontent against her boss and said it was only "human nature" for workmates to discuss her accusations. He said he believed that there was a case to answer.

The teenager felt too embarrassed to speak officially of her ordeal, Mr McDonald said, until she was dismissed for "budgetary reasons" - a decision made with Mr Jennings's knowledge.

The tribunal later heard how Mr Jennings's new wife, Katrina, had written to the division's general manager saying the couple were experiencing difficulties, and accusing the trainee of fabrication.

The tribunal was also told that Mr Jennings joked publicly about a female sale manager's failure to clinch two deals, parodying the phrase used in the office for failure to clinch a deal - a blow out - as a "blow job" saying the woman had had "two blow jobs in one night". He also openly criticised her decision to move in with a colleague.

In another incident, he told the woman, who had been speaking to a prospective job applicant: "You were almost in bed with him." Mr Sutton told the tribunal that the remarks humiliated her. "She was being made out to be a tart," he said.

Robin Taylor, regional manager of Prudential's central region who oversaw the final stages of the disciplinary proceedings, said he rejected Mr Jennings's claim that the three women had hatched a plot to secure his downfall and the premise that his sexual innuendoes were typical.

The hearing continues today.