Recruitment firm founder cleared after he was sued by worker offended by his use of the phrase to congratulate a colleague
“Sassy minx” can be a term of empowerment because it makes women “feel like Beyoncé”, a tribunal heard as a CEO was cleared of harassment.
Frank Varela, founder and chief executive of headhunting firm V&P Global, used the phrase to congratulate his colleague Francesca Vaughan after the company found a job for one of its candidates in 2019.
However, Mercedes Cobbing, who worked as a personal assistant in the human resources department, lodged a formal complaint and claimed he should not use the phrase because he is a man.
Mr Varela proceeded to ask what “sassy minx” meant after he used it, only to be told by Ms Cobbing to “not use that phrase” again.
A conversation then took place in which Ms Vaughan looked up the phrase and read out its multiple different meanings, a London Central tribunal heard.
“She explained she and [a co-worker] meant it as a bold, spirited and lively young woman, rather like Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian,” the tribunal report said. “They understood it to mean a strong, independent and confident woman, and they used it as a term of endearment to each other.”
Ms Vaughan and her colleague then explained that it was an example of where a negative or derogatory term, traditionally used about a protected characteristic, is “reclaimed” by the same group and given a positive meaning.
‘Some young women may have co-opted the phrase and used it differently’
Clearing Mr Valera of sexual harassment, Judge Tamara Lewis said there was no evidence of claims by Ms Cobbing that Mr Varela had used the term either to describe a candidate, or on a further 17 occasions. [J4MB emphasis]
“It is unlikely that someone of his generation would use or adopt such a phrase,” Judge Lewis said. “Some young women may have co-opted the phrase and used it differently.”
However, she also ruled that Mr Varela harassed Ms Cobbing, whose father is of Asian ethnicity, on grounds of race. This was because of an incident during a meeting in July 2019, in which he looked at an image of a black woman working at a law firm and asked: “Do you think she just has a really good sun tan?”
Judge Lewis found that Mr Varela had made the “flippant and offensive” remark in an open office and made the observation, overheard by Ms Cobbing, in conversation with another of the company’s 12 staff.
“We do not think it is acceptable in the 21st century for an employer to be talking about people who are not white and using the term ‘sun tan’ when doing so,” Judge Lewis said.
While the judge accepted that the comment was not personally directed at Ms Cobbing, she said it was reasonable for her to feel that her dignity had been “violated”.
Ms Cobbing, a former vegan blogger who resigned in the same month, lost separate claims of constructive dismissal and disability discrimination, along with other racial and sexual harassment claims that she had submitted.
She will now attend a separate hearing regarding compensation from Mr Varela and V&P Global.
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