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£3m sex discrimination case winner: 'Everybody loses'

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Media captionSvetlana Lokhova: "From the moment I started working at the company there was this really hostile atmosphere"

When Svetlana Lokhova arrives she looks drawn and tired, she has dressed in a hurry in her partner's shirt after another morning of calls to lawyers.

This is the first interview she has given since being awarded over £3m from an employment tribunal for sexual discrimination, earlier this month.

"I will get net somewhere around £2m," she says, "most of which will then end up going to lawyers. Lawyers have charge on my house so everything basically is going to go to them."

Ms Lokhova tells of her three-and-a-half year fight against her former employers, the Russian investment bank, Sberbank CIB (UK) Ltd, at machine-gun speed.

The hurt of the financial loss is dwarfed by the emotional cost to her and, she says, the heavy toll on her mental health.

"The word 'hell' is a nice way of describing it... the effect that it had on my life is absolutely terrible and it's very difficult to feel victorious. It's actually very, very sad. Sad for everyone, there is no victory in this."

So why was this high-flying banker awarded such a huge sum in compensation for a job she held for less than a year?

Back in 2011, Ms Lokhova was highly regarded by Sberbank's senior management. She was a tough cookie who had worked for them before and had been their most successful sales person.

In June 2011 she was appointed to a new post in the bank's London office. The bank agreed to pay her over £300,000 a year with the chance to make even more for a job she loved.

"I really, really enjoyed this because for a young person it was very exciting to be sort of in the centre of the world where things were happening," she tells the BBC.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In 2011, Ms Lokhova took up her post in Sberbank CIB's London office

'Toxic atmosphere'

Crucially, however, some at Sberbank CIB's London office did not want her there as she had been appointed from head office.

Her new job was in a small, quiet office - and she immediately felt hostility from her new colleagues.

"The atmosphere was sort of strange and I started getting reports from people when I'm not in the office. People, especially my direct boss, calling me derogatory names."

Names like "Miss Bonkers" - but there was much worse being said by her direct boss, David Longmuir, in emails and messages to her colleagues and clients in major investment banks.

"Crazy Miss Cokehead can have my desk," said one, calling her a "schizo nightmare… another expensive mistake".

Ms Lokhova did not know about these messages but the atmosphere was starting to affect her work.

"In the sales environment you have to be a very sort of happy person and very confident because it's actually very tough to call a very important client from scratch. You have to be in the right frame of mind."

She had worked hard to build a successful career in investment banking but says her confidence now began to drain away.

"This toxic atmosphere, it was getting me sort of quite upset. I thought I was just being paranoid, I thought I'm imagining [it] but I just felt really, really stressed."

Image caption Despite winning, Ms Lokhova says she will never be able to work in financial services again

False accusation

By the end of 2011, just six months into her new post, Ms Lokhova complained to the bank that she was being discriminated against - a month later she was placed on sick leave by her doctor.

She tried to negotiate an amicable exit from the company. Her lawyer asked for any written communications about her. Several boxes arrived and Ms Lokhova was stunned at what she discovered.

On the first page was a message from her direct boss, David Longmuir, to a client, before she even arrived at Sberbank CIB (UK) , which said: "We're all quaking here awaiting for arrival of a crazy Miss Cokehead in a puff of sulphurous smoke."

"I just remember opening the first page," says Ms Lokhova, "and everything just going blank and me just bursting into tears and dropping the file.

"My whole career flashed in front of me and to have somebody just basically just take it away from me like this, I just couldn't understand."

What made it even more painful, she says, was that many of Mr Longmuir's messages were sent when he was sitting so close to her in the office that their elbows touched. The repeated false accusation that she was a class A drug user was one she had to defend. She decided to take the bank to an employment tribunal.

In April 2012 Sberbank CIB conducted a disciplinary hearing against Ms Lokhova's direct boss, David Longmuir. It lasted just five minutes. He admitted his comments were unacceptable and he was given a written warning.

In 2013 Ms Lokhova's case for sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation came before the Central London Employment Tribunal. It was a bruising process.

"I was being told that I was useless at my job. I was being told that I'm unstable. Everything was looked into through this sort of very negative light," she says.

After what she calls "eight days of hell" there was one final sting in the tail. She was asked to examine a message to her partner referring to "lines". It was suggested that the word meant lines of cocaine.

"It was put to me in open court in front of all the press that I was a drug taker and my partner was a drug provider," she says.

She had actually been referring to the well-known banking term trading "lines" and the tribunal agreed that this was not a reference to drugs.

Ms Lokhova had had enough. She voluntarily took a drugs test which she says, "of course proved negative, I've never taken any drugs in my life".

Image caption Sberbank CIB is appealing against the amount it's been ordered to pay

Continuing battle

When the judgement arrived six months later it was damning. It found that Ms Lokhova's manager and the head of the Sberbank CIB's London office were personally liable for her harassment and victimisation.

Mr Longmuir was given a £160,000 pay-off by the bank. The head of the London office is still in post.

It took another 18 months for the final financial award of almost £3.2m damages. There was an extra sum for aggravated damage because the tribunal said there had been a deliberate attempt by Sberbank CIB to put pressure on Ms Lokhova by claiming she was a drug user, when the bank knew this was not true.

The award is to compensate her for the fact that she will never work in financial services again. She is hoping to return to her original field of study, history, researching the Soviet secret service, the KGB.

But her legal fight is not over. Sberbank CIB is appealing against the amount the tribunal said they must pay in damages and in a statement told the BBC the incidents against Ms Lokhova were isolated and unrepresentative of its working environment. The bank insists it is an equal opportunities employer and has taken steps to ensure it doesn't happen again.

So after three-and-a-half years of legal battles and millions in legal bills, has it been worth it? She shoots back an answer: "Of course it wasn't worth it, people who think you come out of court as a victor - that's just not true.

"Everyone loses out. What a waste of three years of my life, a waste of health, a waste of money."

Listen to The Report on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST on Thursday 30 April.

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