If your relationship were on the rocks, if you saw the object of your affections drifting away from you, what would you do? One would imagine, possibly even expect, that you would take urgent steps to get things back on track and that you would try desperately to see your other half so that you could explain why you were meant for each other. You might succeed and both live happily ever after, but even if you do not, surely you cannot be criticised for trying? Well, yes and no, as it turns out. Normally the worst you can do is make yourself look just terribly foolish, but where you and the person you had imagined as your intended both work for the same employer, bigger issues can arise. You may find that you play out the dying twitches of your relationship in the Employment Tribunal instead.
How about this sad tale of Cupid’s dart going badly astray, as recently reported in the Birmingham Mail? Ms A was a Police Constable with the West Midlands Force who worked with a male Sergeant, B, for some two years up to October 2011. Over that time they were involved in a close and intimate relationship. Comprehensively smitten and his affections seemingly reciprocated, B ended his prior long-term relationship to be with A and on 22 October asked her to marry him.
Two obstacles arose. The first, a relatively minor point, was that the proposal was made by text message, which in my view more or less requires its rejection on principle in any event. Text? Really? Second, it transpired that A was in fact already engaged in another equally intimate relationship with a different colleague, C, and on the verge of moving in with him. Not put off by this unpromising development, there were “ten attempts by the desperate [B] to contact [A] by phone and text between 23 and 24October” said the Employment Tribunal to which A somewhat uncharitably referred her former lover’s attempts to talk her round. Who said romance is dead? We have not seen the Tribunal’s full Judgment in this case and so the content of those calls and texts remains unclear. The Tribunal found that they amounted to sexual harassment by B and adjourned the matter for a remedies hearing at a later date.
What compensation should A be awarded, if anything? No financial loss is alleged, so this appears to be an injury to feelings question only. The Employment Tribunal finds itself in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, it has found that these messages did fall within the Equality Act definition of harassment and therefore that they caused A some level of distress. On the other hand, it was clearly deeply unimpressed with A’s conduct in the matter: “The Claimant cannot be blameless in the catalogue of events. Put starkly, she decided unilaterally to cast aside what has been a mutually flirtatious intimate personal relationship with B, and perceive it as harassment”, it said, and she “had done nothing …to disabuse B of the notion that they were de facto a couple …. But we believe that she always knew that would never happen and that was not her intention”. Of B the Tribunal said: “We do not find that B is a bad person ….the balance of his mind was disturbed by his realisation of the truth … he is not, we think, by instinct or demeanour the sort of man who routinely sexually harasses a woman in or out of the workplace”.
So the Tribunal clearly feels for B. But it cannot legally, let alone politically, reach a decision that A somehow brought unlawful sexual harassment on herself. Equally, it cannot find that the gravity of B’s actions (and hence the compensation award) is reduced because he is basically a decent bloke without any “form” who was tragically misled and dreadfully upset at the time. Clearly B can be blamed for what he said on 23-24 October (the Force gave him a disciplinary rocket for it too). However, if the limited press reports thus far are true, the romantic in me rather hopes that the compensation awarded is entirely nominal. Do please let me know what you think.