Knitwear expert Rachel Sunderland was repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of other colleagues with less experience until she felt forced to resign
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An experienced designer for high street fashion store Superdry has won almost £100,000 in compensation after her bosses refused to promote her – because they thought she was too old to quit.

Knitwear expert Rachel Sunderland was deemed a low ‘flight risk’ from the company compared to younger members of staff and would stay ‘no matter how she was treated’, an employment tribunal heard.

As a result, she was repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of other colleagues with less experience until she felt forced to resign.

Ms Sunderland – thought to be in her early 50s – has now won £96,208.70 in compensation, after winning claims of unfair dismissal and age discrimination.

The tribunal, held in Bristol, heard she was a knitwear design specialist with more than 30 years experience in the fashion industry at brands like Fang Bros and Boden before joining Superdry as a designer in 2015.

In the first season in which she was responsible for designing Superdry’s range of men’s knitwear, sales – which had been falling – increased by 63 per cent.

Her performances were applauded by her bosses, who rated her overall ability as ‘master’ in 2017 and 2018.

Knitwear expert Rachel Sunderland was repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of other colleagues with less experience until she felt forced to resign

Knitwear expert Rachel Sunderland was repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of other colleagues with less experience until she felt forced to resign

But the risk of her leaving Superdry was assessed as ‘low’, whilst the impact of her leaving was assessed as ‘medium’. 

This flight risk assessment was neither discussed with Ms Sunderland before it was made nor disclosed to her afterwards.

The tribunal heard that, when Ms Sunderland first started working at the fashion brand everyone had the title of ‘designer’, but this changed in 2017 when two of her colleagues were promoted to ‘senior designer’.

She raised this issue in an appraisal meeting with her manager in March 2017 but he told her she needed to undertake other responsibilities to reach the rank of senior designer.

In August 2018 the design team was restructured with roles of trainee designer, assistant designer, designer, lead designer and design manager.

Florence Humphreys, an HR advisor at Superdry, told the tribunal that in order to be promoted to lead designer, a candidate would need experience of working across multiple categories without needing much support and guidance from senior colleagues.

Ms Sunderland claimed she had all of the experience necessary, as she managed work in the men’s and women’s knitwear and knitwear accessories categories, even taking over extra responsibility in the busiest time of the year when one of her colleagues went on maternity leave.

In April 2020, Ms Sunderland was placed on furlough until July 2020.

On her return to work, she was told that she would be designing the Autumn Winter 2020 knitted accessories range, for both men and women. She told the tribunal this felt like a demotion as she would be on ‘key fobs and beanies’.

Ms Sunderland handed in her notice in July 2020, whereupon she was told she would have to work a three month notice period ‘as the design department was short-staffed’, which she said she found ‘demoralising’. 

She told the tribunal that, in the lead up to tendering her resignation, she had felt much frustration and emotional stress, and decided that ‘enough was enough’.

She said that she had made herself ill with the stress of the previous year, and couldn’t continue to work in an environment where unreasonable pressure was placed on her, combined with the refusal of management to give her the recognition that she felt her skills and experience deserved.

She described feeling ‘humiliated and degraded’ when junior members of staff asked why she was not a lead designer.

The tribunal heard Ms Sunderland was further demoralised when, in September 2020, a woman with 20 years less experience had been recruited as a lead designer shortly after two other similarly ranked designers had been made redundant.

She described it as ‘galling’ that she had been denied what she felt was her rightful elevation to lead designer, having resigned in distressing circumstances, only then to be invited to celebrate the new recruit.

After she resigned, Ms Sunderland raised a formal grievance about the way she had been treated, but this was dismissed and as part of the process she was described as ‘scatty’.

Employment Judge David Hughes said this comment was ‘loaded with subjectivity, the sort of term that verges on a term of abuse and which the Tribunal would not expect to be used to describe a younger, male colleague’.

Regarding her lack of promotion, the judge added: ‘We find that [Superdry] did this in significant part because of [Ms Sunderland’s] age.

‘We have already noted that [her] flight risk was assessed as low. We consider that older members of staff are likely to have a perceived lower flight risk.

‘We do not accept the reasons advanced by [Superdry] for not promoting [Ms Sunderland].

‘To fail to promote [her] on the basis that she could not work cross-category (when she could, and did), that she couldn’t work with minimal referral (which she could, and did) and that she lacked managerial/leadership experience (she did not) is a set of facts from which the Tribunal could infer that [Superdry] discriminated against [Ms Sunderland].

‘We find that the decision makers decided not to promote… because they judged that there was little risk of her leaving the business no matter how she was treated. We find that they probably thought this in significant measure because of her age.

‘We find that a similarly valuable designer who was significantly younger than [Ms Sunderland] probably would have been promoted.’

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