Coleraine woman awarded £20,000 after ‘sleazy and sustained’ sexual harassment

Coleraine woman awarded £20,000 after 'sleazy and sustained' sexual harassment

Mary Kitson

A Coleraine woman who was sexually harassed by her supervisor over a long period of time has been awarded £20,000 by the Industrial Tribunal.

Shauna McFarland was supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland in her case against former employer Morelli Ice Cream Ltd and their employee Remo Di Vito.

Ms McFarland experienced sexual harassment over a long period of time by Mr Di Vito, a supervisor who is also a member of the extended family who own the company. The Tribunal judgment found his conduct was “by any standard sleazy and sustained”.

She first raised a complaint of sexual harassment in September 2016. The Tribunal found that no investigation into this complaint was conducted, although a verbal warning was issued.

Ms McFarland was not advised about the outcome and there was no follow-up with her. The Tribunal judgment criticised the extreme leniency of the penalty imposed and the “grudging minimal compliance” with the requirement to address her complaint.

The Tribunal accepted Ms McFarland’s evidence that the sexual harassment started again within weeks. She believed this was because her complaint was not taken seriously by her employer.

The Tribunal concluded that the employer had not taken steps to fulfil its obligation to deal appropriately with this man’s conduct, to ensure it stopped and that it would not be repeated. The Tribunal described his conduct as “probably and predictably facilitated” by the employer.

The Tribunal described a text message received by Ms McFarland from this male supervisor in December 2017 as “obscene”. In January 2018 following further unacceptable behaviour, Ms McFarland submitted a formal letter of complaint alleging sexual harassment.

Morelli Ice Cream Ltd held an investigation into the complaint. The Tribunal was critical of the investigation, describing the conduct of the employer as aggressive and overtly dismissive towards Ms McFarland. The Tribunal described the managing director’s declaration that he was entitled to attend the investigation “to defend the company” completely undermined any notion of independence.

As a result of Ms McFarland’s complaint, Mr Di Vito was given a final written warning. Ms McFarland left her employment on a combination of sick leave and maternity leave and did not return.

The original decision by the Industrial Tribunal was made in November 2019, but publication was delayed as Ms McFarland challenged an anonymity order, which was removed earlier this month.

Mary Kitson, senior legal officer at the Equality Commission, said: “Unfortunately, sexual harassment at work continues to be a reality for many women and this behaviour is simply not acceptable. It is important that employers, not only, have policies and procedures in place to protect women from harassment, but they must be actively implemented.

“Women, like Shauna, must feel protected from this type of behaviour and be confident that they can raise complaints without fear of being penalised and that any complaint will be dealt with effectively and in a timely and professional manner.

“Workplaces should be welcoming, inclusive and safe places for all employees and employers should come to the Commission for advice on putting in place effective equality policies and procedures.”

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