Two sacked executives accused of sharing ‘sexist and offensive comments about female colleagues’ in a ‘lads’ WhatsApp group are suing for over £300,000 insisting they were wrongfully dismissed.
Paul Wells and Roberto Solari, who worked for Cathay Investments 2 Ltd, a logistics business in Surrey, were part of a WhatsApp messaging group where pornographic videos were shared with comments about women they worked with.
Some of the comments were about one woman at the company, named only as ‘D’ in court.
They compared her to a woman seen exposing her vagina in one pornographic clip and a woman seen masturbating in another video, London’s High Court heard.
Paul Wells (left) and Roberto Solari (right) are suing their former company, Cathay Investments 2 Ltd, claiming it was wrong for the firm to use messages from a ‘lads’ WhatsApp group among reasons for sacking them
The High Court heard that the company the pair worked for, PNC Global Logistics Ltd, a shipping and airfreight company based in Egham, Surrey, was bought out in 2017 and the new owners, Cathay, dismissed Mr Wells and Mr Solari in March this year.
Bosses say they were justified in sacking them for ‘gross misconduct’, including the alleged wrongful disclosure of company information.
The WhatsApp messages, which were subsequently discovered when another employee handed in their old work phone, also put them in breach of their contracts, the company says.
Mr Solari, 36, is also accused of having used gambling and porn websites at work.
But both men deny any misconduct and claim the reasons for their dismissal were trumped up in order to deprive them of the true value of company shares they say should be worth at least £150,000 to each of them.
The court heard the two men pair each owned a five per cent shareholding in the company when in January 2017 it was bought out by Cathay Investments 2 Ltd, a multinational investments company, with a head office in Horsham, west Sussex.
They signed shareholders agreements and worked for the company under the new owners for two more years after the takeover until telling bosses in January this year they were cashing in their shares, which they say are worth over £300,000 at ‘fair value’.
But in March this year, they were ‘summarily dismissed’ following a disciplinary hearing, meaning that under the terms of the shareholders agreement their shares became almost worthless, and could be bought back by the company for a nominal amount.
Mr Solari junior is also accused of having ‘accessed gambling and pornographic websites on his work laptop whilst at work’. He says another colleague must have accessed them as a workplace ‘prank’
Bosses at Cathay then found two months’ worth of posts on the controversial WhatsApp group made between November 2016 and January 2017, prior to the buyout, including material which the company’s barrister, Edward Levey, said was ‘totally degrading to women’.
The court heard the two men were part of a group known as ‘the old guard,’ some of whom had jokey nicknames for each other based on different types of coffee. Mr Solari – nicknamed Skinny Latte – had set up the WhatsApp Group.
The company’s lawyer Mr Levey told the court: ‘Mr Solari and Mr Wells were members of a WhatsApp group in which they and other more junior employees shared offensive sexist and pornographic messages, including offensive comments about their female colleagues.
‘Many of the messages were sent during the course of ordinary business hours.
‘The members of the group were accustomed to sending each other crude, offensive sexist and pornographic messages,’ he told Judge Jonathan Simpkiss.
He continued: ‘Not only did the members of the group make offensive and sexist comments about women in general, but some of their offensive remarks were directed at certain specific female employees of PNC.’
The company the men worked for, PNC in Surrey, was bought by Cathay Investments 2 Ltd in 2017 and the two men were later sacked
‘The female employees who were being discussed on the group were not aware of what was being said about them behind their backs but…if they had known, the women in question would have been horrified.
‘The defendants allege that, by being members of the group, Mr Wells and Mr Solari breached their duty not to engage in behaviour which could or tended to undermine a positive and harmonious working environment and created or encouraged a working environment which was hostile, degrading or offensive for other employees,’ the barrister said.
The lewd messages retrieved from the phone were posted before the buyout, but the company’s lawyers are asking the judge to infer they carried on in the same tone for the next two years.
Mr Solari’s father, Paul Solari, is a former chairman of PNC and attended the case. He was not involved in the WhatsApp group
They say they have evidence that the group continued until January 2019 and are asking the judge to find that banter of the same ‘offensive’ tone continued on their watch.
But Chris Quinn, for Mr Wells and Mr Solari, is asking the judge to rule that they were wrongfully dismissed and ‘did not act in material breach of their employment agreements’.
He said that the messages the company found on the WhatsApp group are irrelevant as they date from before the takeover.
He told the judge ‘the sole reason for their dismissal was for Cathay Investments 2 Ltd to avoid paying them fair value for (the shares)’.
‘Mr Wells and Mr Solari allege the company contrived their dismissal,’ he said.
He also argued that the company should not be allowed to rely on the WhatsApp evidence.
In the witness box, Mr Wells told the judge: ‘The chat diminished. It stopped when we were acquired by Cathay. I said to the guys ‘what has been going on in this group, we’ve got to tone it down’.’
Of the suggestion the two female employees referred to during the WhatsApp banter ‘would have been horrified had they known’ the messages being passed about them, he said: ‘I think ‘horrified’ is the wrong word. They would have been p**sed off about some of the comments that were made.
‘It was a jokey office. The two women in question would also make reference to the blokes in the office and take the p**s out of the blokes. The culture in the office was a very thriving culture.
‘The office was a very blokey laddish office. There was some bad language in the office and a few people pranked each other. I’ve known these guys for a long time. That culture that we had was a great one.
‘I’m not saying these videos were right, but they were just sent for amusement. This was just a lads’ group. We wouldn’t talk like that in the office.
‘There might be an occasional swearword in the office, but in this industry that’s what it was like, and it created a great atmosphere.’
Mr Wells said of the WhatsApp grouP: ‘This was just a lads’ group. We wouldn’t talk like that in the office.’
The two men’s former employers also claim that both wrongfully disclosed confidential company information and were involved in providing ‘reverse engineered’ financial information on PNC to the new owners following the buyout.
They both deny the allegations.
Mr Solari junior is also accused of having ‘accessed gambling and pornographic websites on his work laptop whilst at work’.
Of that, he says that another colleague must have accessed the banned sites on his work computer without his knowledge as a workplace ‘prank’.
The court heard part of the culture in the office had been some of the men using coffee-based nicknames to refer to each other.
Mr Solari’s father, Paul Solari, the former chairman of PNC, was nicknamed ‘Al Cappuccino’, while another senior figure was known as ‘Full-fat Cappuccino’.
Neither were involved in the WhatsApp group and are not parties to the case.
The High Court case continues.