In Heafield v Times Newspaper Ltd, the employment tribunal has held that a comment about the Pope shouted by an Editor across a busy newsroom and a subsequent reduction in shifts offered to the claimant did not amount to victimisation or harassment on the grounds of religion or belief.
Mr Heafield was a casual sub-editor on the Times Newspaper. He is a practising Roman Catholic, but none of his colleagues were aware of his religion. During the weeks leading up to the Pope comment, Mr Heafield had become unhappy about what he considered to be anti-Catholic coverage by the Times of the allegations concerning sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but he did not voice his concerns. In March 2010, the newsroom was preparing a story concerning a further allegation against the Pope which, for the purposes of identifying the story for publication, was referred to as ‘the Pope’. The senior sub-editor had not received the story as the deadline approached, and shouted across the newsroom ‘Can anybody tell me what’s happening to the f*****g Pope?’ Mr Heafield subsequently complained in writing that he had found this comment to be offensive, unnecessary and blasphemous. However, the complaint was not taken up by his manager, nor did Mr Heafield pursue a formal grievance.
Mr Heafield subsequently brought a tribunal claim alleging that the Pope comment amounted to harassment on the grounds of religion or belief. This claim was dismissed by the tribunal, which held that although the comment amounted to unwanted conduct, there was no evidence that it was intended to violate Mr Heafield’s dignity or to create a hostile or degrading environment for him. The comment was not made on the grounds of religion; it was simply an enquiry about a piece of work. In addition, there was no evidence of any generalised anti-Catholic banter in the newsroom.
Mr Heafield also alleged that a subsequent reduction in his shifts amounted to victimisation. However, the tribunal found that this was mainly a result of a general reduction in casual shifts offered by the newspaper. It also held that the failure to investigate Mr Heafield’s complaint was due to his manager not giving it any credence, rather than an act of victimisation.
This decision is a useful reminder that conduct will only amount to harassment if it can reasonably be considered to have the purpose or effect of violating the claimant’s dignity or creating a hostile or offensive environment. This means that a claim is unlikely to succeed where it was not reasonable to take offence, or where a claimant is particularly sensitive. The context of the conduct will be crucial. In this case, the relevant comment was made in the highly pressurised environment of a newsroom where shouting and swearing are not unusual.