A worker decorates doughnuts at Project D's factory in Spondon, Derby  2100x1400

Source: Project D

A worker decorates doughnuts at Project D’s factory in Spondon, Derby

Project D has been ordered to pay £31,411 after an employment tribunal ruled a former doughnut decorator had been subjected to “unlawful discrimination” in pursuing a sexual harassment complaint.

The tribunal, which concluded on 23 May in Nottingham, heard how Holly Merriman had been bear-hugged, backed into a corner, and had her bottom grabbed by a male colleague while they were working at the company’s Spondon factory in Derby.

This initial incident was said to have occurred some time between December 2020 and January 2021. Subsequent incidents noted in the tribunal report included Merriman, who was 17 at the time, being called a “potwasher” by the colleague, as well as disparaging remarks made about her wages compared to his, and her being told she needed chewing gum because her breath smelled.

Additionally, he had shouted profanities at Merriman, belittled her, and called her more names on 28 March 2021, the tribunal panel heard. Project D was found to have failed to take seriously and adequately investigate Merriman’s complaints about the harassment despite a meeting held between supervisors and the employees later that day. Merriman had been pressurised to forget the incident and move on, said the report.

On 28 April 2021, Merriman received a letter from Project D informing her that it could no longer support her employment due to insufficient work, citing a downturn in business following a busy Easter period. The panel did not accept this claim, pointing to press reports between October 2020 and May 2021 that suggested the doughnut brand’s products were “very much in demand”.

“These were serious matters which included the Claimant being dismissed for having reported the fact that she had been the victim of sexual harassment and having that complaint swept under the rug without any action being taken in respect of it,” stated the tribunal report.

While noted for having previous issues with her mental health, Merriman’s experience at Project D was said to have caused her to go from “bubbly and vivacious to a shell of her former self” including being “nervous, anxious and withdrawn” and “constantly in tears”. She had been forced to go back on mental health medication, had “felt sick” about returning to the workplace, and had painful symptoms of fibromyalgia aggravated by the stress.

In its reserved judgment, the tribunal panel awarded Merriman £6,002 in financial losses and £25,409 for Injury to feelings (including interest).

Having spent around 12 months with a trauma coach, Merriman is now reported to have recovered some confidence by setting up her own dog walking business.

Company response

Project D issued a statement today (7 June 2024) offering an apology to Merriman. “We understand the gravity of her situation and deeply regret that she felt unsupported and unfairly treated,” commented marketing director Max Poynton. “The well-being and safety of our employees is of utmost importance to us, and we take any allegations of misconduct very seriously.”

Poynton, who co-founded the business with his friends Matthew Bond and Jacob Watts in 2018, claimed significant changes to improve the workplace culture and policies at Project D had been made. ”In the years following this incident, we have employed a senior HR professional dedicated to ensuring that our workplace is safe, respectful, and inclusive for all employees,” he said, noting that its workforce included men, women, and non-binary employees from a variety of multicultural backgrounds.

“The tribunal’s decision has been a significant learning experience for us, and we are committed to making continuous improvements to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future,” added Poynton.

The company also wanted to emphasise that the person accused of the harassment has never been cautioned by the police, arrested or charged in connection with the incident outlined in the industrial tribunal, and noted that he had also been 17 at the time. 

Recent months have been challenging for the business, including a loss-making quarter and closure of two of its retail locations.