Vulnerable zero hours worker awarded £19,500 for sexual harassment

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This recent case highlights the importance of taking complaints of discrimination and harassment seriously and serves as a reminder not to forget the protection afforded to zero hours “workers” under the Equality Act 2010.

In Southern v Britannia Hotels the employment tribunal considered the vulnerability of a worker due to her zero hours contract and her perception that she was dependent upon her manager to secure working hours.

Miss Southern, a 22-year-old waitress, alleged that she had been sexually harassed by her manager over a period of eight months. The actions complained of were of a serious nature and included sexual touching and inappropriate discussions about her sex life. There were a number of aggravating factors: the claimant was young; she had a history of mental illness; the perpetrator was in a position of power; and due to her employment status she perceived that the perpetrator would determine what work she would be offered.

Miss Southern discussed the matter with another manager who suggested she made a written complaint but failed to take any further action. When her mother eventually raised the issue with the hotel manager a superficial investigation was carried out. It did not gather details about the alleged incidents and only included a very brief interview with the key witness. Witness evidence corroborated the allegations and the manager was found to have acted inappropriately, but he was not disciplined.

The tribunal held that the manager had harassed the claimant and the hotel was vicariously liable. The employer was unable to rely on the statutory defence that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct occurring. The tribunal made it clear that it is not enough to simply have a policy in place; an employer needs to ensure that the policy is implemented and enforced. Miss Southern was awarded £19,500 for injury to feelings.

This case highlights the importance of conducting a thorough investigation when handling complaints of discrimination and harassment. Also, do not forget the protection afforded to zero hours “workers” under the Equality Act 2010 and ensure that all complaints are taken seriously.
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