A zero-hours worker was awarded £19,500 by an Employment Tribunal for injury to feelings following an eight month campaign of harassment by her manager. The employer hadn’t taken all reasonable steps to prevent the mistreatment, so its attempts to rely on the statutory defence to a claim for harassment failed.

Employee’s harassment complaints not properly dealt with

In Southern v. Britannia Hotels and Nkorol, the employee worked as a waitress in a hotel on a zero-hours contract. She complained that her immediate line manager, Mr Nkorol, frequently tried to discuss her sex life with her. She was told to lodge a formal complaint. She didn’t do so, and the employer took no further action. Following a prolonged period during which Mr Nkorol continued to make inappropriate sexual comments and advances towards her, she formally complained. After conducting a perfunctory investigation where key details were ignored, the hotel manager concluded that Mr Nkorol had exhibited inappropriate ‘mannerisms and behaviour’, but took no further action against him. A second investigation, this time conducted by an HR Manager, was launched once Ms Southern brought a claim for harassment against both her employer and Mr Nkorol. Again, there were material deficiencies with this new investigation, including the fact that the investigator failed to read the papers from the earlier inquiry. The Tribunal upheld the employee’s claim. Her vulnerable employment status, age and mental health prompted the Tribunal to increase the size of the compensation. The Tribunal awarded £19,500 injury to feelings, for which both the employer and Mr Nkorol were jointly and severally liable.

Lessons for Employers

Although only a first instance decision, this case provides a number of important lessons for employers dealing with discrimination issues in the workplace, especially where they seek to rely on the statutory defence that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination happening.

  • Conduct a proper investigation. The fact that three senior members of staff separately failed to conduct a proper investigation weighed heavily against the employer. The failure to suspend Mr Nkorol (which would have preserved the integrity of the investigation) or indeed take any disciplinary action against him were factors that prevented the employer from relying on the statutory defence.
  • Written policies are not enough. Employers need to back up their written equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies with appropriate action, adequate staff training, and regular reminders to staff of the standards of behaviour expected of them. This case is also a useful reminder that individual harassers can be personally liable for the mistreatment they cause – something that employers may wish to highlight when giving training on this issue.
  • Requests by the victim to keep things low key may have to be overruled. It is relatively common for employees to raise concerns but to ask for no formal action to be taken. In this case, when the employee first raised the issue, she asked the manager not to take action because she was worried her shifts would be cut. However, where potentially serious allegations have been raised, as happened in this case, employers may well have to take formal action.