How to stamp out one-off sexist comments

An employee has been awarded over £360,000 in compensation by an employment tribunal after her manager made a one-off sexist comment during a conversation. In the case, the employee worked for BAE Systems as a secretary from 1998. She alleged she was bullied and harassed and subjected to sexual harassment. She moved to a different office in 2005 but remained unhappy. In 2006, her manager suggested she returned to the original office to carry out work. The employee was concerned she would be required to work with colleagues she had made allegations of mistreatment against and she believed her objections were not being taken seriously. In a conversation with her manager in April 2006, her manager said words to the effect of “women take things more emotionally than men while men tend to forget things and move on”. This comment caused the employee to go off sick with stress and she suffered a mental breakdown. The employee was dismissed in July 2007 and has not worked since. At tribunal, her manager’s comment was judged to constitute sex discrimination and she was awarded over £360,000 in compensation to include loss of income. The employer appealed the amount of the award but this was dismissed. This case highlights the importance of stamping out sex discrimination in the workplace in its entirety. Some employers may think that one-off comments or jokes cannot be classed as sex discrimination, however, this is wrong and it could open the business up to the risk of a large compensation claim, especially where the comment causes the employee to suffer additional damage to their mental and physical wellbeing. What this means for employers:
  • Employers should provide training to managers on providing feedback and handling difficult situations. Although this manager appeared to be trying to empathise with the employee, managers should not make any comments regarding gender in any circumstances, including when communicating decisions to staff, holding meetings or during informal conversations. Notwithstanding the potential to claim sex discrimination, a failure to deal with difficult situations appropriately will lead to staff losing trust and confidence in their manager.
  • One off sexist comments may also occur as ‘banter’ between staff in the same team or department. This can give rise to claims of sexual harassment where a member of the conversation, or another staff member overhearing the conversation, feels that the comment has violated their dignity or created a humiliating or offensive environment. Employers should ensure they are informing staff what conduct and language is appropriate in the workplace, an accessible equal opportunities policy is in place and training is provided.
  • Out of work conversations that are regarded as connected to the workplace could also lead to a discrimination claim against the employer. A sexist comment at Friday night work drinks or a lunch meeting out of the office may be linked back to the employer. Reminding employees of the appropriate conduct during this times should be sufficient to prevent this occurring.
  • Employers should take employee objections seriously and deal with issues at the time they arise. Any employee concerns regarding bullying or sexual harassment should be fully investigated in a timely manner. This will help to address the situation and stop any concerns leading to the employee making a claim at tribunal.

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