Claims of harassment, be they current or historical, are everywhere at the moment. Regardless of your view on the legitimacy of some of these, what is undeniable is that employers can’t continue to make allowances for the types of conduct that are being reported without risking significant legal exposure.

To assist employers in identifying the behaviours that could give rise to valid discrimination complaints, we’ve produced a series of “myth busters” to help separate fact from fiction, all of which will be published on this website in the next few days.

Of course, if you’re an employer and would like to discuss any of the issues touched on in these posts, please contact one of our HR consultants in confidence and without delay for some initial advice free of charge and without obligation.

Myth: A single comment that is not repeated cannot be sexual harassment.

Fact:    A one-off single act can constitute sexual misconduct serious enough to result in summary dismissal. There is no need for further harassment to have occurred. Earlier this year, BAE Systems were on the wrong end of a £360,000 award in relation to a case that centred round a manager’s comment to a secretary that “women take things more emotionally than men”. Despite the Company labelling the level of compensation a “grossly excessive…affront to justice” and the Court of Appeal accepting that the manager appeared to have made the comment “in what appears to have been an attempt to express sympathy”, the Court nevertheless ruled that it was proportionate in the circumstances on the basis that the comment precipitated the Claimant’s mental breakdown which was then exacerbated by protracted tribunal proceedings involving eight separate hearings. Whilst this is obviously an extreme example of the possible consequences of an isolated instance of sexual harassment, it serves as a timely reminder that employers should take all reasonable steps to prevent such conduct in the workplace, for example in the form of:

  • robust policies that are clearly communicated and frequently reviewed;
  • regular training for employees and managers;
  • compliant disciplinary and grievance procedures through which complaints can be addressed; and
  • proportionate and consistent disciplinary action against perpetrators.

Look out for our next post, which will deal with the relationship between “banter” and harassment.