Friday, 20 December 2013

Fit and sexy remarks are costly

Company bosses must give staff the opportunity to make confidential complaints if they feel they are being harassed in the workplace, a legal expert has warned.

John Mehtam, our employment law specialist, highlighted a high-profile case involving 22-year-old Elizabeth Cowhig, who worked at a call centre for Liverpool-based electronics firm Digital Maintenance Ltd.

Line manager Owen Kennard, told Elizabeth she had ‘the best legs’ of all his staff, made inappropriate remarks about her being ‘fit’ and ‘sexy’, and at one point asked her to spend the night with him in a luxury hotel.

Shortly after trying to report the issue to the managing director, she was reprimanded, and then sacked without explanation. A tribunal awarded her £13,000 in compensation for sexual harassment.

John said: “Elizabeth could not claim for unfair dismissal because she did not meet the required length of service. But the right not to be sexually harassed at work kicks in immediately. It seems that where the company went wrong in this case was failing to provide employees with a proper facility to make a confidential complaint.

“Having a robust ‘dignity at work’ policy is not enough. Staff should be able to contact directors or proprietors personally if they wish to complain about unlawful treatment.

“By giving them the opportunity to make a direct report by a letter or e-mail marked as a confidential HR matter, an employer is seen to be taking all reasonable steps to prevent such instances occurring.”

John said: “When harassment or any kind of discrimination is alleged, the buck does not stop with the company; it’s the directors who can be held personally liable. By allowing employees to make a direct report, they cannot ever claim that their door was not open.

“Just because comments are dismissed as office banter, they cannot be ignored if the person involved is upset by them and directors must ensure they take any complaints very seriously.”