The ongoing issue of sexual harassment in the workplace was considered recently by the Employment Relations Authority and serves as a warning to all employers to ensure the workplace is a healthy and safe working environment.
The case involved a construction company (the employer) and a female office assistant (the employee) (we will call her Sally). Sally was under the supervision of and reported to a director (we will call him Jim). From the start of her employment, Sally was subjected to ongoing sexual harassment by Jim. Jim commented that Sally would be more sexually appealing to prospective customers if she wore more sexy outfits, he would stand close to her when she sat at her desk and on one trip in a lift asked her if she was afraid that he would rape her. Sally raised her concerns several times and ultimately resigned from her employment.
What the Employment Relations Authority said:
The Authority found that there was no investigation of the sexual harassment complaint, and no practical steps to assess the situation and ensure the working environment was healthy and safe. This was found to be a breach of the employer’s duties and was sufficiently serious enough that the employer should have foreseen the risk of Sally resigning. Sally was therefore found to have been unjustifiably constructively dismissed.
Bullying and harassment can also support an unjustifiable disadvantage claim and in Sally’s case the Authority said Sally had been unjustifiably disadvantaged in her employment.
The Authority ordered $15,000 for lost wages and $28,000 for compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings. The Authority also ordered a significant penalty of $14,000 against the employer.
The hefty penalty and compensation payment illustrate how serious sexual harassment in the workplace is and that it should not be tolerated.
It is important that sexual harassment is raised in writing with the employer as soon as it begins.
If you have concerns about sexual harassment or bullying in the workplace, contact us for a confidential discussion about your rights and options.