After inappropriate behaviour towards as many as 10 women, a senior executive at the UK’s authority on workplace conduct has been fired for sexual harassment.
John Woods sent a “barrage” of inappropriate sexual messages to a junior staff member, suggested “sex bets”, and left a pair of knickers on another female colleague’s desk, according to an employment tribunal judgment published on December 23.
The judgment detailed how an internal Acas investigation revealed that a number of women had accused him of conduct ranging from flirtation to “inappropriate comments and behaviour”, dating back five years.
During the probe, the deputy chief conciliator for Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) – a Government funded body which makes rules for workplace behaviour – was said to have complained the MeToo movement had “changed the rules” and “lowered the bar for sexual harassment”, the judgment explained.
According to the document, Mr Woods was sacked in 2019 for gross misconduct, but sued Acas for unfair dismissal and won after the tribunal found the body failed to follow its own rules during the dismissal procedure.
But a judge ruled Mr Woods was not owed any compensation because, even if the process has been carried out correctly, he would still have been fired for gross misconduct.
Among the allegations, detailed in the judgement, were how Mr Woods said one woman had a “nice pair of pins”, invited another to his hotel room for sex during a residential training course, and sent texts with “innuendo, compliments and kisses”.
On another occasion, he was said to have asked a female colleague if she had done a “Basic Instinct” in an interview – a reference to the 1992 film in which the character Catherine Tramell exposes herself while being questioned.
The judgment stated the internal investigation found evidence to suggest Mr Woods was “perceived as being very powerful and influential within Acas” and had “groomed” and “gaslighted” one woman who had therefore “accepted his coercive, manipulating and threatening behaviour at the time”.
One internal report said there was evidence of “a pattern of behaviour” of him making approaches towards new, young female colleagues and that he was described as “persistent”, but employees felt they could not address his behaviour because of his seniority and their being new to the organisation, according to the judgement.
Addressing the allegations, Mr Woods said: “Things have changed since the MeToo movement, I don’t like it but I can understand it. It seems that the rules have changed”, the tribunal document said.
In his judgment, Employment Judge David Khan said that Mr Woods “showed no insight or remorse”.
He said: “It is relevant that the claimant was in a senior leadership role and a position of trust as well as authority.
“There was therefore a demonstrable pattern of harassing conduct by the claimant which was directed at junior female colleagues.Employment Judge David Khan
“The claimant showed no insight or remorse into the impact that his actions had on his colleagues although he acknowledged, at his appeal, that some of his colleagues could no longer work with him.”
Judge Khan said Acas’ decision to anonymise witnesses “went beyond its own internal and external policies and guidance” and it should have provided Mr Woods with witness statements.
He added: “I take into account the fact that [Acas] is responsible for the provision of codes of practice and guidance on workplace procedures and also on advising the public on their application.”
Following the decision, an Acas spokesperson said: “Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work and Acas does not tolerate any form of bullying, harassment, discrimination or inappropriate behaviour.
“We take any allegation of misconduct and sexual harassment very seriously and we dismissed the person concerned following a disciplinary process.
“We note the tribunal’s judgment and are learning from this case to improve our disciplinary procedures.”