Kate Palmer from Peninsula HR says, following a recent case, employers need to ensure that comments made in the workplace do not create an uncomfortable or offensive environment for any staff members.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended, even if it wasn’t intended. Some examples include flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance; telling sexually offensive jokes; asking questions about someone’s sex life; making sexual comments or jokes about someone’s sexual orientation or gender reassignment; or, touching someone against their will, including hugging or massaging.
Such behaviour is displayed in this tribunal judgement (Hartley v D Hollowell & Sons Limited) which ultimately led to the employee’s dismissal being deemed fair – in particular, his comments of his colleague being “curvy in all the right places” and looking up her skirt, in addition to ‘pet’ names of “sweetie, love, chick, honey, babes and hun,” which his female colleague felt offended and demeaned by. The tribunal found that such pet names would not have been used in communication with male colleagues and a comparison of “mate” and “pal” is not equitable since these are appropriate nicknames which do not undermine the individual being addressed.
Employers should be conscious of remarks like these being utilised in the workplace and ensure that “banter” is not creating an uncomfortable or offensive environment for any staff members. Having clear policies and zero-tolerance communication on workplace bullying and harassment can help protect organisations against claims, as can regular staff training and a culture of professionalism. Organisations might need to consider establishing clear standards of practice to remove any element of “laddish” behaviour and make clear that the workplace is an environment of respect and equality.
It is important to remember that tribunal decisions are made based on the individual facts of the case. In this instance, a key determining factor was the additional inappropriate comments the employee made to several of his colleagues and not just the use of pet names to refer to them. It would be interesting to understand the outcome of the tribunal if the dismissal was based on the use of pet names alone. However, ultimately, any sexist conduct will likely be seen as inappropriate and unfair.
*Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula.