Northern Ireland woman awarded nearly £19k after sexual harassment at work Christmas party

Northern Ireland woman awarded nearly £19k after sexual harassment at work Christmas party

Geraldine McGahey

A woman who complained of sexual harassment and victimisation after a staff Christmas party has been awarded £18,857 by the Industrial Tribunal.

Shirley Lyons, who worked as a designer/sales consultant with Starplan in Portadown from June 2013 until April 2018, was supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland in bringing a case against her former employer.

Her complaints of sexual harassment and victimisation following events at a staff Christmas party were partially upheld. The tribunal panel found her claim of unfair dismissal was well founded. Other lesser claims were not upheld.

Ms Lyons was the only woman employee, along with six male colleagues from the Portadown and Dungannon showrooms, to attend the company’s Christmas party in Starplan’s Portadown showroom on 16 December 2017.

She was off work that day but joined the team in the late afternoon when the party was underway in the showroom before it moved on to a restaurant. As the evening wore on, the men’s behaviour became wilder and more disagreeable to Ms Lyons. Despite her attempts to deflect it, she could not stop it.

The tribunal found that one of her colleagues had made comments about Ms Lyons’ breasts and cleavage and hugged her from behind without her consent. He also suggested to her that that they might have an affair and touched her bottom in the restaurant. The tribunal was “satisfied that these matters amount to both verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature”.

On 20 December 2017, Ms Lyons reported to her line manager that she had been sexually harassed by a male colleague at the staff Christmas party. Seven days later, she lodged a formal written grievance, which was investigated by her line manager.

On 6 February 2018, Ms Lyons received the grievance investigation report, which upheld some of her allegations and dismissed others. She appealed this.

At a meeting on 8 March 2018, Ms Lyons raised allegations of victimisation against three of her colleagues including ignoring and excluding her, threatening to “take her down” and intimidating and abusive language and behaviour. Ms Lyons felt she could not remain at Starplan and resigned on 7 April 2018.

The case was heard by the tribunal in 2018, but jurisdictional issues about timing delayed publication of the decision and it was further delayed by the pandemic until 2021. The original judgment was anonymised by the tribunal, which Ms Lyons appealed in 2021. The tribunal revoked the anonymity order in January 2023.

Geraldine McGahey, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, said: “This case highlights three important lessons for employers.

“First, a work party is still work and employers are liable for what happens there. The Tribunal panel found that Starplan ‘did not put in place any guidelines or instruction for standards of behaviour and the consumption of alcohol for attendees and that the most senior person present, was not formally delegated responsibility for supervising the party’. These measures should have been put in place.

“Second, the employer should have taken action to prevent victimisation by colleagues after it became known informally that she had formally lodged a grievance with the company. An employer is liable in law for the discriminatory behaviour of its employees.

“Finally, by failing to protect Shirley at a work event, and afterwards to protect her from victimisation, her employer breached its duty of trust and confidence to her. When she resigned as a result of this breach, the Tribunal was satisfied that her dismissal was therefore unfair.

“Work parties and outings can be an important element of reward, recognition and team building. But like any other area of work, employers must ensure everyone attending is safe and their dignity is respected, and if that doesn’t happen, and staff have cause to complain, they must be protected from victimisation.”

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