There is no task more sensitive than dealing with complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace. A company found that out to its cost after letting down an enthusiastic young employee who was groped by a senior executive in the back of a taxi.
The woman, who had recently left school, was on friendly terms with the executive prior to the incident, which occurred in the aftermath of a client event. Desperate to keep the job she loved, she for some months tried to behave as if it had never happened. She eventually came to hate going to work and, after informing senior colleagues of the incident, there was a highly charged meeting at which she was sobbing, distraught and at times barely able to speak.
She was told to take some time off to compose herself and was on sick leave when she was dismissed without notice. Her formal grievance had in the meantime been dealt with in her absence. After she lodged Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings, the company asserted, amongst other things, that her allegations against the executive were false and made in bad faith.
Upholding her complaints of sexual harassment and victimisation, the ET described her as a credible witness and, on the balance of probabilities, accepted her account of the sexual assault. In the aftermath of the incident, the executive had twice given vent to his hostility by referring to her in abusive terms linked to her sex.
Criticisms of the company’s decision to hold the grievance meeting in her absence were rejected. However, the ET found that the company had subjected her to unreasonable time pressure and deadlines in the grievance process. It had bombarded her with correspondence whilst she was on sick leave in the full knowledge that she was distressed and tearful.
The company’s claim that she had not been dismissed but had resigned of her own free will was rejected. Her dismissal itself amounted to an act of victimisation in that the sexual assault allegation was a significant factor in the decision to terminate her employment. Her dismissal without notice also amounted to a breach of contract. The ET gave directions for a further hearing at which the amount of compensation due to her would be assessed, if not agreed.