Acas senior executive fired after string of sexual harrassment claims

Senior boss at workplace rights body Acas who asked a colleague if she’d ‘done a Basic Instinct’, threw knickers on another’s desk and invited woman for sex WINS unfair dismissal case – but won’t get a payout after being found guilty of sexual harassment

  • John Woods offered colleagues ‘sex bets’ and left knickers on a woman’s desk 
  • He complained the MeToo movement ‘lowered the bar for sexual harrassment’ 
  • Woods was fired for gross misconduct but counter sued Acas for unfair dismissal
  • He won his case because employer failed to follow its own rules in sacking him 

A senior executive at the country’s leading authority on workplace behaviour was fired for sexual harassment after he asked a younger female colleague if she’d ‘done a Basic Instinct’ to try to win promotion.

John Woods, of London, bombarded junior employees with suggestive text messages, suggested ‘sex bets’ with them, and even left a pair of knickers on one woman’s desk.

When challenged, the Deputy Chief Conciliator for Acas – which makes rules for how employers and employees should behave – moaned that the MeToo movement had ‘changed the rules’ and ‘lowered the bar for sexual harassment’.

The long-serving executive was fired for gross misconduct but sued Acas for unfair dismissal – a case he has now won because his employer was found not to have followed its own rules in sacking him.

However, he will not receive compensation after an employment tribunal ruled was guilty of multiple counts of shocking sex harassment.

The hearing was told married Woods, also Head of Collective Conciliation and Arbitration at Acas, was part of the public body’s senior leadership team, having worked there for nearly 40 years until he was sacked in July 2019.

In 2018, following a complaint by a junior female employee who had had a consensual sexual relationship with him, details about his ‘sexually predatory behaviour’ began to emerge for the first time.

Long-serving Acas executive John Woods, of Colchester, Essex, was fired for gross misconduct but sued his employer for unfair dismissal – a case he has now won because his employer was found not to have followed its own rules in sacking him

Woods, pictured above in 2016, sent suggestive messages to his peer and even once left a pair of knickers on a younger female employee’s desk

An internal Acas investigation found as many as 10 women – who were up to 30 years younger than him – felt subjected to inappropriate behaviour by Woods dating back five years. 

Woods said one woman had a ‘nice pair of pins’, placed his hand on one co-worker’s thigh, invited another to his hotel room for sex during a course, and sent ‘barrages’ of texts with ‘innuendo, compliments and kisses’.

He ‘ostentatiously’ returned a pair of knickers to a junior colleague, referred to in the tribunal ruling only as ‘L’, by placing them on her desk at work.

He asked colleague ‘P’ if she ‘did a Basic Instinct’ during a promotion interview, suggesting she had shown off her naked body in the same way seductive character Catherine Tramell – played by Sharon Stone – does in the classic thriller.

Woods suggested having ‘sex bets’ with another woman, E, and L, made comments about appearances, sent photos of L in a bikini to E, and was ‘flirtatious’ with many women.

At one point Woods asked a younger female colleague if she’d ‘done a Basic Instinct’ to try to win promotion, a reference to Sharon Stone’s character stripping naked in the acclaimed 1992 hit film

He also sent a photograph to a co-worker of his legs while he was on holiday, joking that he was wearing her knickers, the panel heard.

Colleagues said that although they didn’t realise it at first, they later felt they were being ‘groomed’ and ‘gaslighted’ by ‘creepy’ Woods, the tribunal was told. Women repeatedly rejected his advances and told him to ‘f*** off’.

The panel in central London heard: ‘There was evidence of a pattern of behaviour of Woods making approaches towards new, young female colleagues.

‘He is described as being persistent and employees not being able to deal with the behaviour due to his seniority and individuals being new to the organisation.

‘The investigation identified inappropriate behaviour / comments by Woods going back 5 years. There is some evidence which supports the fact that Woods is perceived as being very powerful and influential within Acas.’

One text he sent a colleague said: ‘My weakness, anyway, is my fascination with changeling looks* your face alters so much, from soft, classically beautiful to*well, all sorts of things.

‘Can you please return to a minimum reply time of two days in replying to my texts – if you reply at all? Give them the respect they deserve, for heaven’s sake*’

In another, he told a woman she reminded him of ‘girls at school’ who promise to show their knickers but ‘bend your fingers right back and give you Chinese burns’.

Woods, who engaged in sexual relationships with some of the women, was suspended and sacked at a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct in 2019.

But, he moaned: ‘Things have changed since the MeToo movement, I don’t like it but I can understand it. It seems that the rules have changed.’

He also complained ‘the MeToo campaign had lowered the bar for sexual harassment’.

The tribunal report added: ‘Woods agreed that he had a flirtatious manner but did not agree that this was the same as sexual harassment.

‘He also agreed that he preferred the company of women to men but was friendly and outgoing towards colleagues of both these sexes.’

Woods (pictured) is said to have moaned: ‘Things have changed since the MeToo movement, I don’t like it but I can understand it. It seems that the rules have changed’

Employment Judge David Khan said Woods showed no ‘remorse’ and breached his position of trust.

Judge Khan said: ‘It is relevant that Woods 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 Woods which was directed at junior female colleagues.

‘He 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…

‘Woods also felt that the MeToo movement had made it easier to substantiate sexual harassment complaints.’

Despite finding that Acas was within its rights to sack him, the judge found there were faults in the technicalities of its procedure as witnesses were unfairly anonymised from him and he was not given their statements.

‘The steps taken by Acas in relation to anonymity went beyond its own internal and external policies and guidance’, the judge said.

‘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.’

Judge Khan criticised Acas for breaking its own rules in this case and upheld Woods claim that he had been unfairly dismissed.

However, the judge ordered that he will not receive any compensation as his behaviour was deemed to be so bad that if the process had been properly followed he would have been sacked for gross misconduct anyway.

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