Employers must promote a zero-tolerance approach, have a robust framework to counter any potential harassment and ensure there is a safe and respectful working environment for all.
A former National Grid trainee has been awarded almost £360,000 after she pursued claims for sexual harassment, victimisation and constructive dismissal against her former employer.
Emma Tahir joined the National Grid in April 2020 under their Constructive Development Programme (“CDP”), an 18-month training contract to become a project or site supervisor. The CDP role offered an attractive package, including a salary of around £30,000 and a company car.
Fifteen months into the role, Ms Tahir resigned, having suffered sexual harassment from her manager, who was also her mentor, as well as victimisation by him and others.
Ms Tahir was bombarded with explicit messages from her manager, including inappropriate propositions and comments, as well as unwelcome physical advances. Ms. Tahir lodged a formal complaint about her manager, but this did little to protect her. He remained employed in the same role despite an internal investigation into the allegations.
Worse still, she suffered victimisation from both her manager and those in charge of handling her complaints, which included circulating a judgment which detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at a previous company, in a bid to influence the outcome of the investigation.
The National Grid conceded liability in relation to the sexual harassment and victimisation claims, acknowledging contraventions of the Equality Act by subjecting Ms. Tahir to 26 acts of sexual harassment and 8 acts of victimisation.
The Tribunal found that, given the undisputed and exceptional evidence, it was perverse that the National Grid did not dismiss the manager after its initial investigation, either before Ms Tahir resigned or afterwards. The employer also failed to resolve the matter informally through redeployment, as Ms. Tahir wished. Instead, they pressured her to submit a formal grievance, initially rejected it, and only overturned the decision on appeal.
After taking everything into consideration, Ms. Tahir was awarded £357,004 in compensation. This substantial sum included £40,000 for injury to feelings, £10,000 for general damages (psychiatric injury), £5,000 in aggravated damages, and an ACAS uplift at 15% (which equated to £11,240.17). In addition, Ms. Tahir was awarded £73,719.47 for future losses, as the Tribunal accepted the treated had significantly impacted her professional trajectory.
Key Takeaways for Employers
As Ms. Tahir’s case has shown, employers can be held liable for the acts of its employees if they have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it.
Ms. Tahir’s claim for remedy was heard before the Tribunal in May 2023, not long after it was reported that another household name, McDonald’s, had signed legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) in response to concerns regarding its handling of sexual harassment complaints by staff within its UK restaurants.
Under this agreement, McDonald’s has pledged not to commit an unlawful act. In return, the EHRC has agreed to refrain from taking enforcement action against it. For a more detailed insight into this you can explore our recent blog here.
What do employers need to know?
- The law is changing. The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill is currently working its way through Parliament and is set to strengthen up the law on sexual harassment in the workplace. The Bill will introduce a new duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment occurring in the first place, and a failure to do this could increase an award by up to 25% in the Tribunal.
- A new Code of Practice will be introduced. The Bill will be underpinned by a new statutory code on sexual harassment produced by the EHRC. It is likely that the code will require employers to conduct training on standards of conduct, policies and practices which address sexual harassment.
- Employers should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Any grievance or concern that is raised must be dealt with and investigated promptly and properly, whilst ensuring that action is taken against employees who are found to have done wrong.
- Procedures, policies and training. If they don’t already, employers need to introduce training for all members of staff on recognising sexual harassment. Employers should also revisit their policies and procedures to ensure they are adequate, up to date and consistent with the zero-tolerance approach.
- Be alive to what sexual harassment could look like. Guidance from the EHRC states that suggestive looks, staring or leering; sexual gestures; and unwelcome touching, hugging, massaging or kissing could all qualify as sexual harassment.
The landscape of workplace harassment is shifting, and it’s no longer enough for employers to just respond to complaints that are made. Employers must promote a zero-tolerance approach, have a robust framework to counter any potential harassment and ensure there is a safe and respectful working environment for all.
If you need any support, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with our experienced employment team today.