June 17, 2015

How to stop office banter becoming serious sexual harassment

Office banter could cost your business £3.2 million if it becomes sexual harassment or gender based discrimination.

In a recent employment tribunal case, Lokhova v Sberbank, a female banker was awarded £3.2m for office “banter” that crossed from bullying to sex discrimination – highlighting that substantial costs can stem from failing to take sexual harassment and gender based discrimination at work seriously.

An employment tribunal found that the claimant had been a victim of harassment, victimisation and discrimination amounting to constructive dismissal.

Following the Tribunal’s decision the bank said it was committed to taking on board any lessons to be learned.

While some may feel that office “banter” between employees creates a fun, light-hearted atmosphere, perceptions of what is acceptable can differ greatly.

Chris Hadrill, an employment solicitor, commented on the case: “This case shows that businesses should take every possible step they can to put in place measures to train their staff in their equality policies and promptly and fairly investigate any allegations of discrimination, harassment or victimisation in the workplace.

“A failure to properly train staff or properly address grievances can lead to – as it did here – extremely expensive, embarrassing, and time-consuming Employment Tribunal litigation.”

Sexual harassment could include:

  • Unwelcome comments of a sexual nature
  • Unnecessary touching or unwanted physical contact
  • Leering at someone’s body
  • Displaying offensive material such as posters
  • Sending offensive e-mails

Organisations must show they have taken all “reasonably practical” steps to prevent banter entering the realms of discrimination or sexual harassment by:

  • Putting the correct policies and procedures in place and make them accessible to all staff
  • Communicating them to staff when they join the workplace and ensure they have read them, drawing particular attention to Anti-Discrimination policies and the Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures
  • Training managers to spot bad behaviour and deal with it properly
  • Having the right policies, including Equal Opportunities and Bullying and Harassment policies should express a zero tolerance of inappropriate behaviour, and ideally should provide clear examples of what is inappropriate, including nicknames, crude remarks, sarcastic comments and laughing or whispering about someone else.

Mandatory training and ongoing support should be given to all employees’ including managers.  Organisations should promote a transparent, open door policy for all employees’ that also incorporates fully comprehensive guidelines.  Any breaches of these policies should be investigated thoroughly through the organisations disciplinary process.

Further Advice

Our Advice Line and Policy Team can help, advise and support you regarding this or any other employment related issue.  Please contact us and we’ll be happy to help.

Want a round-up of stories like this delivered to your inbox?

About the author

Stephen Johnson

Stephen has over 25 years experience in private sector HR and management roles, working as a Manager for over 10 years and eventually moving into the financial services industry. In his current role as an HR Policy Review Consultant he develops, reviews and maintains our clients’ employment documentation. With extensive knowledge of management initiatives and HR disciplines Stephen is commercially focused and supports clients in delivering their business objectives whilst minimising the risk of litigation.