Employers who do not have robust procedures in place for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment put themselves in harm’s way, both in reputational and financial terms. A building company found that out after mishandling a woman’s complaint that a colleague sexually molested her in the aftermath of an office night out.
After accepting the colleague’s offer of a lift home following the event, the woman asserted that he subjected her to obviously inappropriate sexual advances in the car. She informed managers of the incident the following day, but did not lodge a formal complaint. She thereafter remained working in the same open-plan office as the colleague for about a year before she was moved to a new location.
Some time later, she heard a rumour that the colleague was to be moved so that he would again be working in close proximity to her. After she expressed concern, her employer treated the matter as a formal grievance. A grievance meeting took place, but the procedure did not reach fruition prior to her resignation.
After she took action, an Employment Tribunal (ET) upheld her sexual harassment complaint. Although the colleague denied any wrongdoing, it found on the balance of probabilities that he made unwelcome sexual advances towards her during the car journey. Given that the incident occurred following an organised works social event, the ET found that the colleague’s acts of harassment took place in the course of his employment.
In also upholding her complaint of constructive unfair dismissal, the ET noted that there was no evidence of the company having taken any steps at all to ensure that its employees behaved at all times in an appropriate manner to one another. Although it was a large undertaking, the ET had the clear impression that the company provided very little in the way of human resources support or personnel.
Managers were fully aware of the woman’s serious allegations against the colleague but had made no attempt to warn or prepare her for the fact that they would again be sharing a workplace. Despite her obvious unhappiness and threats to leave, the company was not prepared to take any steps, whether temporary or permanent, to try to avoid them having to work together.
The company had the opportunity and resources required to take such steps but, instead of doing so, it chose to set up a grievance meeting at which the woman was required, once again, to give her account of the incident in explicit detail.
The ET found that the woman was entitled to resign in that the company’s conduct inevitably undermined or destroyed the relationship of trust and confidence that should exist between employer and employee. The amount of her compensation would be assessed at a further hearing, if not agreed.