A £200,000 a year businesswoman who says she was sacked because she wasn’t interested in talking about football or drinking with ‘the lads’ has lost her sexism claim.
Adrienne Liebenberg was fired as director of global sales, marketing and innovation at FTSE 100 packing conglomerate DS Smith in December 2018 after being told her leadership style was ‘not working’.
After being shown the door she took the firm to an employment tribunal, arguing she had been sacked because of her gender and was marginalised because she didn’t want to join in with male banter in the workplace.
Ms Liebenberg, who had previously worked at oil and gas giant BP Castrol, said key business decisions were often taken over by boozy dinners with a ‘gang’ of senior male employees.
She claimed her boss and Inter Milan fan Stefano Rossi would often interrupt meetings to discuss football or watch highlights.
Ms Liebenberg added that she found it difficult to join in with these events, because she felt ‘alienated by the focus on drinking, and talking about football, and starting up late’.
She told Central London Employment Tribunal: ‘I felt that Stefano’s modus operandi was to connect with his team over wine, dinner and football.
‘Because I did not embrace those things in the way that my male colleagues did, I was perceived – by Stefano and others – as not being a “team player” or “one of the gang”.
‘I did not believe that I was accepted as ‘one of the lads’ and I did not feel that I was capable of playing such a role. When I did not join in I felt under pressure to do so.’
Senior colleagues including CEO Miles Roberts were adamant that Ms Liebenberg was sacked because of poor performance rather than sexism.
The tribunal heard how she conveyed a ‘haughty’ approach to her junior staff, making reference over dinner to her ‘large property and an infinity pool’.
In a statement Mr Rossi cited her ‘dictatorial approach’ and ‘lack of respect for senior colleagues’.
The claimant’s line manager said the company was ‘seeking a different leadership style’ and criticised her for not being ‘collegial’ with other employees.
He admitted occasionally checking football scores on his phone and said he enjoyed wine because he was a trained sommelier and liked to deepen his knowledge, not get drunk.
Dismissing her claims of direct and indirect sex discrimination, Employment Judge Harjit Grewal said: ‘She said that she felt that Mr Rossi’s modus operandi was to connect with his team over wine, dinner and football, and because she did not embrace those things in the way that her male colleagues did, she was perceived by them as not being a team player. We have not found that such a culture existed.
‘The dinners normally lasted about three hours or a little longer and there was wine available for those who wanted it. The number of bottles consumed was normally half that of the the number of attendees.
‘The conversation over the dinners covered a variety of topics – people’s families, holidays, homes, interests, etc. We have no doubt that football came up in the conversation sometimes, but it was not the only or the dominant topic of conversation.
‘We accept that the claimant did not particularly like attending the dinners and often did not like the food that was available.
‘More importantly, we have not found that Mr Rossi’s complaints about the claimant’s leadership style and not working collaboratively with the management team related to her not bonding with them over dinners because she did not drink or discuss football.
‘We have found that his concerns were about how she worked with the regional MDs and the others in the management team, apportioning blame when things went wrong rather than working together to resolve the problem and not recognising and working within the budget constraints.’
Ms Liebenberg joined DS Smith in March 2017 and was handed a ‘special joining award’ of £100,000 on top of her six figure salary, but tensions quickly mounted between her and Mr Rossi, the company’s Packaging CEO.
The firm, Mr Rossi, CEO Miles Roberts and HR director Tim Ellis had all denied sex discrimination.
However judge Grewal added: ‘The claimant was the only woman in the respondent’s Leadership team. The extent of the lack of gender diversity at the senior levels of DS Smith is unacceptable and needs to be addressed.’
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