Saying a woman looks 'frumpy' at work could count as sex harassment, employment judge rules

 Yuanyuan Zhang said she was 'humiliated' after boss said her outfit was 'frumpy'

Saying that a woman looks 'frumpy' at work could count as sex harassment, an employment judge has ruled.

Investment worker Yuanyuan Zhang told an employment tribunal she had been 'humiliated' after her boss described her choice of outfit as looking like a 'frumpy grandma'.

Although her claim was eventually dismissed because she had waited too long to bring it, the tribunal in central London concluded it could 'understand why she says that' and found 'such a comment was unwanted conduct related to sex'.

As a result, women could successfully sue under equality laws as the comment is 'inherently linked to gender' and has the potential of 'violating their dignity'.

Ms Zhang worked at as a deputy design director for Greenland Investment from September 2015 until March 2021 and had relocated from China for the role.

Saying that a woman looks 'frumpy' at work could count as sex harassment, an employment judge has ruled (stock photo)

Saying that a woman looks 'frumpy' at work could count as sex harassment, an employment judge has ruled (stock photo)

In May 2020, deputy HR director Ling Luan confirmed the company would support her application for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK.

However, the hearing was told that in August an 'issue' with the ILR arose which Ms Zhang claimed 'forced her to resign'.

The panel heard she signed a resignation letter after Mr Luan commented on her trousers and suggested she looked like a 'frumpy grandmother/auntie'.

'Ms Zhang says that [Ling Luan] made reference to her trousers and that they made her look like a frumpy grandma,' the hearing was told.

'The conversation was not in English and we accept the words may not translate over exactly.

'It was the tribunal's finding that it was more likely than not that this comment was made.

'The fact that [Mr Luan] recalls making a comment about [Ms Zhang]'s clothing and the comment appears to be about how drab they were suggests that it was a comment of the nature she alleges.'

Employment Judge Paul Singh said: 'We found that such a comment was unwanted conduct related to sex.

'The very nature of the comment (calling someone frumpy) was inherently linked to gender and we also found that such conduct had the purpose or effect of violating her dignity.

'[Ms Zhang] expresses how humiliated the comment made her feel and we can understand why she says that.'

Despite this conclusion, the tribunal found that as the incident had taken place in November 2020 and she only lodged her complaint against Mr Luan in July 2021, she was too late for her claim to succeed.

As all her other claims were thrown out, the judge ruled the 'frumpy complaint' could 'not form part of a continuing sequence of events'.

Investment worker Yuanyuan Zhang told an employment tribunal she had been 'humiliated' after her boss described her choice of outfit as looking like a 'frumpy grandma' (stock photo)

Investment worker Yuanyuan Zhang told an employment tribunal she had been 'humiliated' after her boss described her choice of outfit as looking like a 'frumpy grandma' (stock photo)

'[Ms Zhang] had put forward no arguments as to why it was just and equitable to extend the time limit,' he added.

'The delay was over 6 months. Whilst there may have been claims that have had a longer delay that have been granted an extension, we took into account the fact that this claim was about a singular comment at a singular incident.

'Even a delay of a few months would make the evidence less cogent. [Ms Zhang] gave no explanation for the delay.

'She did not seek to argue that she was ignorant of her rights or the practicalities of pursing a claim.

'She came across in her correspondence as a very intelligent and articulate individual who we have no doubt could have pursued her claim in time had she put her mind to it.'

The panel found that she raised a grievance in February 2021 but did not include this as part of it.

'Taking into account all of these factors, we decided that it was not just and equitable to extend the time limit for this claim,' the judge said.

'The claim was therefore presented out of time and the tribunal did not have jurisdiction to hear it.'

Ms Zhang had claims of unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, sex harassment, victimisation and unlawful reduction from wages thrown out.

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