An employee in Northern Ireland has been awarded almost £19,000 in compensation after an employment tribunal found that she had been unfairly (constructively) dismissed and her employer had failed to protect her from unlawful sexual harassment and victimisation.
The employee, Ms Shirley Lyons, complained to her employer, Starplan Furniture Limited, about the behaviour of a work colleague at the company’s Christmas party, which involved non-consensual touching, inappropriate comments and a suggestion that they might have an affair.
Ms Lyons reported matters to her line-manager and raised a grievance, which resulted in her being ostracised and victimised by her male colleagues in the workplace, culminating in her resigning and claiming constructive dismissal.
The tribunal concluded that the company was liable for the unlawful discriminatory actions of its employees.
In finding for Ms Lyons, the tribunal indicated that it was not satisfied that Starplan had taken reasonable steps to prevent the acts of sexual harassment and victimisation that had occurred.
In its judgment, the tribunal states:
“Christmas office parties are notorious for the increased risk of inappropriate behaviour between colleagues, usually due to the consumption of excess alcohol in a festive atmosphere outside normal work constraints. In the present case, there was a management failure to provide guidance for the provision and consumption of alcohol or the required standards of behaviour… The most senior person at the party was himself drunk.”
In addition, it concluded that Starplan’s failures amounted to a fundamental repudiatory breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence, entitling Ms Lyons to resign in response to this breach.
A number of important lessons can be taken from this judgment.
Employers should bear in mind that work social events or gatherings are effectively an extension of the workplace and therefore employers should:
- Proactively remind workers of the standard of behaviour required, particularly where alcohol may be consumed;
- Reiterate any workplace guidance in place regarding unacceptable conduct at office functions and the potential consequences of disrespectful conduct;
- Put in place measures to control alcohol consumption; and
- Ensure that a manager is put in charge to ensure that appropriate standards of behaviour are observed.
Where an employee has raised a grievance concerning the actions of workplace colleagues, steps should be taken to actively support the employee in question and prevent any form of less favourable treatment or victimisation by fellow employees. The importance of preventing victimisation should form part of the training provided to managers. In addition, specifying victimisation as a serious misconduct offence in disciplinary procedures is recommended.
Ultimately, failure to take steps to protect employees’ safety in circumstances such as this can result not only in financial loss but significant reputational damage.
An anonymity order has recently been revoked enabling the reporting of this decision.