| 6.1°C Belfast

Sex Discrimination and Harassment

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has announced settlements in two sexual harassment cases brought by women working in what have traditionally been seen as male occupations.

Julie Rutherford, a coach driver from Magherafelt claimed that management at Chambers Coach Hire failed to protect her after she experienced unwanted comments of a sexual nature and inappropriate physical contact. She received £22,500 in settlement. Majella Gallen, a manager with JKC Specialist Cars of Coleraine alleged harassment and less favourable treatment on the grounds of sex and religious belief. The firm settled the case without an admission of liability and paid her £15,000.

There are a number of ways in which a person may subject another to sexual harassment. It could be because of a person's gender, because the harassment is of a sexual nature, because they rejected (or submitted to) the harassment, or because of gender reassignment.

Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for a person. Before 6 April 2008, the complainant had to be the person at whom the conduct was directed. From 6 April, someone can complain of sexual harassment even if they are not the person at whom the conduct is directed. For example, a man may engage in sexual banter with a female colleague in the office. She does not complain about this but another female worker feels this creates an intimidating atmosphere for her. The second worker can claim harassment. Men can also complain about sexual harassment.

Conduct which has the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment can amount to harassment even if the person behaving in that way had no intention of creating such an environment.

It may be that the worker is being discriminated against by colleagues, rather than the employer. However, the employer is legally responsible for any discriminatory action carried out by one employee against another where this is carried out in the course of employment. Harassment during the course of employment includes incidents which take place away from the workplace but at work-related social events. An employer cannot be held liable for discriminatory acts committed by their employees if they can prove that they took such steps as were reasonably practicable to prevent the employee from doing the act. In showing that they have taken steps to prevent the harassment, the employer will have to show that they actively tried to stop the harassment. Merely having an equal opportunities policy will not be sufficient to show this.

An employer may also be held liable if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment of employees by third parties, for example, a customer, where the employer knows that such harassment has taken place on at least two other occasions.

A worker who thinks they have been subject to sexual harassment during the course of their employment and whose employer has not acted to prevent the harassment should raise a grievance with their employer in the first instance.

Further information on issues in relation to sex discrimination or harassment is available from your local CAB. Individuals and employers can obtain more information on all aspects of sex discrimination law from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s enquiry line on 028 90 890 890 or from www.equalityni.org .

Siobhan Harding is an Information & Policy Officer with Citizens Advice