Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Local discrimination tribunal awards over £50,000 in harassment case

This is our first blog in which we discuss various legal topics of interest. A tribunal decision in Belfast this week awarded a Polish woman £52,382.30 in compensation for constructive dismissal and on the grounds of discrimination on the basis of her sex and race.

Marzena Urbanska-Kopowska sued her former employers, Macs Foods based in the Dunmurry area of Belfast. She claimed that she had initiated a grievance alleging sexual harassment but a meeting did not take place for a further three months, a delay described by the tribunal as “inordinate”. When a decision was eventually taken it was to reject the grievance because of a “conflict of evidence and because it was impossible to make a decision in the circumstances.” The tribunal concluded “even if this really was the case, it would have been open for (the employer) to take steps to protect the claimant and monitor the situation.  Therefore the claimant was left in a position where as far as she was concerned there could well have been an ongoing campaign of serious sexual harassment.  Effectively he left the claimant with no support or protection at all.”

The employer was not legally represented during the hearings. There were specific problems with policies. Such policies as apparently existed were not followed and those dealing with them had no equal opportunities training and or knowledge as to how to manage a claim of workplace harassment.

The tribunal said of the employer that he “accepted that there was no harassment policy and when a poster was eventually produced to the tribunal he accepted that the respondents had failed to carry out the recommendations contained in the poster.  Neither was he sure that the poster had been displayed when the claimant was employed. 

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from this case. The first is the need for up to date employment policies, the second is that those whose duty is to apply these policies are familiar with their terms and apply them properly. There is no sense in having employment policies in a filing cabinet when the managers who should be dealing with them are either unfamiliar with their existence or do not know how they are expected to operate.

There are also mandatory legal provisions governing the conduct of all grievance and disciplinary policies and these must be followed to the letter in all cases. In this case because of the manner in which the employer was said to have dealt with a grievance appeal (which was time limited and then “blocked” because it had not been received in time) the tribunal decided to increase its compensation award by 30%. The award for injury to feelings was £20,000 because the tribunal found: “the unwanted physical contact went on for a considerable length of time at a weekly frequency which makes the act of discrimination of considerable significance when considering sexual harassment alone.  We have also taken account of the fact that the claimant was left suffering from depression.” 

Many employers may despair. They have cause to be concerned at such a high award but they need not do so if they seek proper legal advice and act on that basis. Because of changes in the law it is recommended that contracts and employment policies are reviewed on an annual basis and that opportunities be taken to seek advice and training for staff.