In Hunter v Lidl Great Britain Limited, the employer had to compensate a woman whom her manager sexually harassed and other members of staff who thought their behaviour was normal 'workplace banter'.
When Miss Hunter started working for Lidl as a teenager, she was almost immediately subjected to unwanted advances and comments by a fellow employee. When she complained, her store manager told her to 'take it as a compliment'. He also joked about it and said he 'wasn't surprised'.
She continued to be harassed. A deputy store manager touched her bottom, thighs and waist, attempted to hug her and slapped her bottom. He made several highly sexualised comments to her about her sex life, underwear and appearance.
She resigned and issued several claims, including sexual harassment.
What did the tribunal decide?
The tribunal accepted that Miss Hunter had been sexually harassed. Workplace ‘banter’ was commonplace. Managers ranked female staff members by their perceived attractiveness and didn't appear to understand that their comments were offensive.
Miss Hunter was awarded £50,884.62, which included £22,000 for injury to her feelings, plus interest on that part of her award of over £7,600. This was at the higher end of the middle Vento band that applied at the time and reflects the fact that she experienced sexual harassment over a prolonged period.
Lidl could have avoided liability if it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment Miss Hunter had suffered, but it failed to do so because:
Senior managers did not step in to prevent harassment.
Lidl failed to train managers on its anti-harassment policy.
Lidl failed to explain managers' duty to create an environment where harassment was not tolerated.
Lidl failed to deal with complaints in line with its procedure.
In Autumn 2024, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act will require employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces. If they fail to do so, a tribunal can award a claimant additional compensation of up to 25% of their compensatory award.
What should you do now?
Most employers underestimate the severity of the problem in their business. People do not complain lightly. Many will endure it until it stops, find another job or wait for their harasser to leave. You only hear about those that are reported.
Use confidential surveys and focus groups to understand people's experiences and identify whether you have a problem and, if so, to what extent.
Armed with qualitative and quantitative data, you can identify the training your business needs. Train everyone on equality, diversity and inclusion. Explain what constitutes sexual harassment, why you will not tolerate it, and the likely sanctions for perpetrators.
Remind staff that your standards apply to WhatsApp messages, social media channels and socialising with colleagues.
Your policies should clearly explain how staff can complain. Consider web forms or apps as an alternative to grievance procedures. Allow employees to report incidents anonymously provided they understand that you may not be able to deal with it effectively unless they are prepared to make a named report later.
Complainants may need ongoing support during the process. Keep them informed about how you will investigate, your progress and the outcome. A common protest from complainants is that they didn't know what was happening during the process. Discipline perpetrators and ensure that complainants can work without fear of retribution.
Ensure that you have the appropriate policies for your business, that they are fit for purpose and that your people have read and understood them. You should review them regularly.