Ex-Bank of Ireland worker awarded £18k in 2019 speaks out after gagging order is lifted
A woman who won a sexual harassment case against Bank of Ireland said it failed to protect her from a man described by co-workers as “the office creep”.
The man, who was twice her age, subjected her to unwanted comments, touching and images via email.
Natasha McNicholl was 25 and a recent graduate when she joined the branch in Belfast in 2015, only to experience repeated harassment from the married father during the year-long period she worked there.
Two other women had reported harassment by the same individual, and other employees were aware of it.
Now Ms McNicholl wants to speak out about a culture that sees sexual harassment against women in the workplace as something that is still acceptable after she was awarded over £18,000.
“The harassment was unwanted comments, unwanted interactions and touching, sending me inappropriate images over email,” she explained.
"Not long after I started I was made aware of him and other females came to me and said to be wary of him, what his reputation was, everyone knew about it and that he was known as the office creep. That was the behaviour that had been accepted and cultivated in that workplace for so long.”
Her personal space was invaded, comments were made about her personal life and looks, and her hair was touched and pulled. She was sent an image suggestive of oral sex, after which she told her manager: “You will have to do something, I can’t work like this anymore.”
The man even ensured he left work at the same time so they could share a lift in what was described as a “pattern” of behaviour by the tribunal.
One day Ms McNicholl wore her hair in a bun and the man later came over to her desk with a stapled booklet of celebrity hairstyles he had prepared solely for her and suggested she try out, an incident the tribunal concluded was unsolicited.
She said: “There was a history of harassment from this individual. What transpired later on was that it had happened before. The problem meant that I was subjected to what I was in 2015. It protected no one, only the perpetrator themselves.
“There is still a culture within workplaces that are very driven towards men feeling powerful. Yet women feel unsafe, are feeling uncomfortable, being objectified and subjected to that kind of harassment.”
The man continued to subject her to sexual harassment even after she complained to management and he had been told by the bank not to have any further contact with her.
The tribunal heard the man was previously required to apologise after he behaved inappropriately towards a female member of staff in the Bank of Ireland’s Bangor branch. No further action was taken.
Another female employee reported harassment by the same man in 2016.
His conduct towards Ms McNicholl was in breach of the bank’s harassment policy. But the tribunal was not convinced managers dealing with the incident had any relevant knowledge of the policy, or had even read it.
Bank of Ireland accepted in evidence that training was inadequate and that ‘Dignity at Work’ training only commenced in the year after the events took place. The man was suspended after Natasha reported further sexual harassment.
She was initially bound by an anonymity order that prevented the naming of her and her employer after winning her sexual harassment case in 2019 with the assistance of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
She was awarded £18,483 in June that year after the tribunal concluded the sexual harassment was serious, repeatedly violated her dignity and created an adverse working environment.
Ms McNicholl was happy with the finding of discrimination, but she felt very strongly that it was wrong the tribunal anonymised its decision.
She appealed with the support of the Equality Commission, and in February 2020 the Court of Appeal directed the tribunal to reconsider the order and determine how the case should be reported and published.
It led to a decision that Ms McNicholl, Bank of Ireland and other persons involved in the judgment could be named, while the culprit and the other women he harassed could not.
Ms McNicholl, who now works as a teacher, said: “This has been a five-year or more ordeal for me and my family and it has been the most stressful thing that probably I’ve ever gone through. But I’m glad I’ve done it, I’m glad that it’s out there and will hopefully make other people feel like they can come forward as well.”
She was “surprised” by the condition of anonymity but knew she wanted to be able to speak about her case. “I felt if stories like this don’t come out, then people won’t feel empowered that they can come forward, challenge behaviour and demand their employer protects them in the workplace.”
Geraldine McGahey, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, said it took a “great deal of courage and perseverance” on behalf of Ms McNicholl to speak out.
“This judgment clearly sets out the failings of the Bank of Ireland in relation to the training of employees and management in its own policies and their failure to keep accurate records. Our advice is that all employers should take these complaints seriously, have a policy on sexual harassment and ensure it is implemented robustly and consistently to help prevent sexual harassment occurring and ensure that our workplaces are safer for everyone,” she said.
Queries to the Equality Commission’s helpline are “continuing to rise” and people should speak up. She added: “This behaviour is absolutely unacceptable in any workplace or environment and I feel part of our culture in Northern Ireland is to say: ‘It’s a bit of craic’. It’s not craic when it makes people feel uncomfortable, when it impacts on their dignity and the whole atmosphere within the workplace.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure this behaviour doesn’t happen, there is a line drawn and make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Bank of Ireland said it “fully accepts” the decision made by the tribunal and said it took allegations of harassment very seriously. The situation that took place in 2015 was “totally unacceptable”, it added. “We deeply regret that Ms McNicholl was subjected to this harassment, share her disappointment that it has taken so long to resolve and would like to sincerely apologise to her,” it said.
It appointed an independent external investigator to look into the allegations after the complaint in 2016 and said the tribunal was “satisfied” with the work carried out.
“In support of this, we have introduced a range of initiatives, including mandatory ‘Dignity at Work’ training for all managers and staff, and increased awareness and understanding of policies which promote respect and dignity in the workplace and the expected behaviours of colleagues,” it said
"Our ‘Speak Up’ policy encourages colleagues to raise any concerns about behaviours or practices which conflict with our culture and values.
“We also believe in full transparency and disclosure in such cases. We did not seek an anonymity order in this case, nor did we oppose the Equality Commission’s application to reveal relevant names.”