Following an expensive outcome for a law firm after unflattering emails were sent discussing a female employee and claims of harassment and religious discrimination, Jenny Wotherspoon and James Dutson report on what employers can do to avoid such claims.
Topic: Harassment and religious discrimination
When: December 2008
Law stated as at: January 2009
It has been widely reported that Saleca Faisal-Parkar, a Muslim legal assistant at law firm Shakespeare Putsman LLP, has accepted a settlement payment of £75,000 on the first day of an Employment Tribunal hearing against her employer.
Ms Faisal-Parkar was allegedly called “tent ‘ead” in an email sent by her boss. The racist comment was one of several discriminatory incidents that Ms Faisal-Parkar, who wears the hijab, allegedly endured during her time with the firm.
This case is particularly relevant at a time when discriminatory comments by Prince Harry and Prince Charles have been in the news. Prince Harry was widely criticised for calling a fellow officer cadet "Paki", while at the same time it was revealed that Prince Charles had referred to an Asian friend by the nickname "Sooty" for several years.
Employers in the UK are required to observe several anti-discrimination laws which are designed to ensure equality of opportunity at work, to protect employees' dignity and ensure that complaints can be raised without fear of reprisal. In summary, these laws provide that:
- An employer must not discriminate either directly or indirectly against employees on the basis of: sex; gender reassignment; being married or in a civil partnership; being pregnant or on maternity leave; race; disability; sexual orientation; religion or belief; or age.
- Harassment is a form of discrimination and involves unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity or creating an offensive, intimidating or hostile environment, and is unlawful if it is related to any of the characteristics listed above.
- In judging whether alleged conduct has had the purpose or effect described above, a Tribunal will have regard to all the circumstances (including, in particular, the employee's perception). Therefore, it is clear that harassment may occur unintentionally.
- Harassment can take the form of a one off event.
- An employer will almost always be held responsible for the discriminatory actions of its employees, even if they are acting against company policy. The Employer will also be liable for acts outside the work place if they are connected to work (i.e. a work social event).
- Agency workers and freelancers are also protected from discrimination, not just employees who are on the books.
Why this matters:
Employers need to be alive to the risk of harassment claims, which can bring not only adverse publicity but also costly legal proceedings and the prospect a hefty award of damages.
Employers should ensure that they do the following:
- Train and educate employees about discrimination and harassment;
- Ensure that they have an equal opportunities policy which is clearly drafted and sets out what types of conduct will be considered to be unacceptable;
- Ensure that their IT policy states that it will be a disciplinary offence to use discriminatory language or send images of a discriminatory nature;
- Make sure that they fully investigate any complaints of discrimination and follow the requirements of the statutory grievance procedure;
- Take appropriate disciplinary action against staff who are found to be guilty of discriminatory conduct.
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