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Sex Discrimination and the cost of a single remark

Sex Discrimination and the cost of a single remark

The result of sex discrimination: We’ve all made comments at work we wish we could take back. But what if those remarks caused someone such distress that they had a mental breakdown? And what if the remarks were made in relation to a legally protected characteristic – gender?

You might think larger organisations would have a handle on this kind of behaviour. However, arms manufacturing giant BAE Systems were fined £360,000 for a single sexist comment. This blog outlines how this comment was really the tip of the iceberg and what you can do to avoid making the same mistakes in your business.

The Case

Marion Konczak had complained of bullying and sexual harassment, by four male colleagues to her line manager. She was moved to another role but when this didn’t work out she was asked to return to her old job working alongside the four men.

Konczak told her manager that she couldn’t do this because of the bullying and harassment history. Her manager responded with a comment about women taking things ‘more emotionally than men who tend to forget things and move on.’

Before this point Konczak had felt ‘dispirited and demoralised’ but this remark made her feel she wasn’t being taken seriously. It was the final straw that tipped her into depression and a period of sickness absence. She was dismissed in July 2007 and was unable to work for 11 years.

The Ruling

The Tribunal rejected 15 other sex discrimination complaints but found the comment by her manager constituted sex discrimination. They also found her dismissal to be unfair and an act of victimisation.

The sum awarded was so large because it took account of the preceding incidents which were deemed to have pushed Konczak to the edge making her vulnerable. The manager’s comment was the final straw.

What BAE Systems Got Wrong And How To Get It Right

Respond to Bullying and Harassment Claims

Regardless of whether the earlier behaviour Konczak experienced was illegal or not, it made her feel uncomfortable enough that BAE Systems felt bound to move her to another role. Having a bullying and harassment policy in place would have guided HR and managers through what to do and how to react. So far, so good.

Don’t Ask A Victim to Work With the Same People Again

By asking Konczak to work with people she had accused of harassment, the manager was insensitive to her concerns. In a company the size of BAE Systems, it should have been possible to find an alternative position.

In smaller businesses, moving people’s desks can be an effective way to separate warring parties. Keeping the lines of communication open will help everyone to feel heard. And ensuring all parties are clear that they must behave professionally will prevent a repeat of any upsetting comments.

Know Your People – And Act Accordingly

What’s bullying and harassment to one is a remark that can be easily brushed off to another. In this case, as well as making a sexist comment, the line manager missed the impact the situation was having on Konczak.

In summing up, the Judge said, “the basic rule is that a wrongdoer must take his victim as he finds him, eggshell personality and all.” This means line managers need to focus on two things:

  1. Whether what was said concerned:
    • a protected characteristic, like race, age or religion
    • a non-protected characteristic, like ginger hair, height or weight
  2. How the comment was received and the emotional state of the individual receiving it

Comments about protected characteristics place businesses at risk of a legal case if, as in the case of Konczak vs. BAE Systems, the appropriate steps aren’t followed. Any case where a protected trait is involved should ring alarm bells and mean you tread very carefully.

The ruling also underlines managers’ responsibility for considering and ensuring the mental health of employees. The crux of the BAE case is that the manager failed to spot the seriousness of the situation and to respond accordingly.

Changing individuals’ behaviour is not a simple fix. But you can put training and awareness programmes in place to help. Ensure your managers know how to listen, what to listen for and how to act in similar situations.

Develop a Culture of Equality And Safety For All

Allowing office banter about non-protected characteristics would make your business an unpleasant place to work for many individuals. And it would also be difficult for them to speak out if the behaviour appeared to be condoned at the top.

Go beyond the letter of the law and ensure that people feel able to speak out when any comments make them feel uncomfortable, not just those relating to protected characteristics.

Be prepared to lead from the front by challenging inappropriate behaviour publicly. This will help to create a safe place where your employees enjoy doing their best work as well as reducing risk for your business.

Bullying and harassment, sex discrimination, victimisation and mental health is a challenging combination of factors to deal with. If your business ever finds itself dealing with any one of these situations, bring in HR support sooner rather than later. It might cost you a little in time and money up front but it could save you a lot of pain, reputational damage and, potentially, £360,000.

If you need HR help for sex discrimination then please contact us.

Know your religious festivals

Know your religious festivals

While Christmas holidays often steal the limelight, accommodating other religious festivals supports employee engagement and keeps your business running smoothly. This run-down of the main religious festivals will help you plan ahead and be culturally aware at work.

Religious Rights and Religious Rites

As an employer, you’re not legally required to give workers time off for religious festivals. That said, accommodating religious requirements outside of Christmas is great for employee morale.

These rules of thumb will help you navigate what might feel like a tricky area:

❌Don’t provide additional paid leave to cover religious festivities. Use annual leave entitlement, flexi-time arrangements, one-off or discretionary flexi-time or unpaid leave to cover time off.
✔Do ask employees to advise you in good time about any requests for time off or flexible working.

❌Don’t over-provide for a particular group – how you treat those of faith should not disadvantage colleagues with different or no religious beliefs
✔Do keep the requirements of your business in mind when deciding whether to grant any special requests.

❌Don’t expect every individual to have the same needs or requirements.
✔Do understand that, as with Christmas, every individual will have their own way of celebrating.

❌Don’t make people feel singled out for their beliefs.
✔Do make colleagues aware of upcoming religious festivals so they can understand and accommodate any changes in behaviour, dress or diet.

Guru Nanak

Sikh tradition typically marks the birth of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, in November. The date can vary and celebrations take place in advance of and following the day itself.

The Sikh holy book is read continuously from start to end two days before the celebration and ending early on the morning of the birthday. Some areas of the UK hold processions and celebrations also take place at home or the Sikh place of worship. These may start at 4am and are followed by a celebratory community meal.

Workplace Considerations

  • Longer lunch breaks may help employees attend a reading at their local place of worship.
  • A late start or early finish can help people attend some of the late night or early morning activities.

Diwali

This Hindu tradition honours Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth. Also known as the festival of lights it celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. It typically takes place over five days between mid-October to mid-November.

Celebrations often involve lighting lamps, firework displays, cleaning the home, wearing new clothes, preparing festive meals and exchanging gifts.

Workplace Considerations

  • Take the opportunity to host a celebratory meal to build team relationships.
  • Support the triumph of knowledge over ignorance by communicating what Diwali is to the wider team.

Passover

One of the most widely celebrated festivals of the Jewish faith, Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery by God. It usually takes place in March or April beginning at sunset and lasting for seven or eight days.

People celebrate in different ways: some will attend temple more regularly during this period; others may choose not to work on the first, second, seventh and eighth days of Passover; and some will follow specific dietary observances.

Workplace Considerations

  • Jewish worship starts at sunset the day before Passover so flexible working or allowing people to swap shifts close to this time will be helpful.
  • Ask your team to advise you ahead of time for any holidays, unpaid leave or flexible working requests. If holiday is to be used to cover the absence, ensure people have enough days.

Ramadan

This Islamic tradition marks the revelation of the first verses of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad. As one of the five pillars of Islam, observing Ramadan is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. The celebrations last for 29 to 30 days and the dates change each year.

Many Muslims will fast each day from sunrise to sunset abstaining from food, liquid and even smoking. People usually have a meal just before sunrise and one after sunset, often gathered together with family, friends and the community. Ramadan is a time for self-reflection, prayer, giving to charity and reading the Koran.

Workplace Considerations

  • Abstaining from food and drink can make some people feel irritable, tired or weak. Ask anyone who is fasting to let their manager know and possibly their colleagues so they can avoid offering food or drink.
  • In manual jobs, risk assessments should be carried out and preventative measures taken for health and safety.
    Fasting can be most felt in the afternoon – arranging more demanding tasks for the mornings may be preferred.
  • As Muslims are required to pray regularly throughout the day, it’s a good idea to ensure a meeting room is available.

Vesak

The most important tradition of the Buddhist festival, Vesak celebrates the Buddha’s birthday and for some his death and enlightenment. The data varies but is usually during April to May.

Buddhists may get together at their local temple before dawn to raise the Buddhist flag, to sing hymns and give offerings. Others meditate in private. Those Buddhists who usually eat fish or meat are particularly encouraged to eat a vegetarian diet during Vesak.

Workplace Considerations

  • Flexibility around working hours, like longer lunch breaks, can help individuals attend their temple.
  • Additional meditation or prayer can be accommodated by giving access to a prayer room; under-utilised meeting rooms often work well.

Demonstrating cultural awareness and being sensitive to the religious needs of all your employees makes good business sense. By bringing celebrations into work your people will feel valued and included. Which will secure greater loyalty and increase engagement, all without damaging the productivity of your business.

If you need help with accommodating religious festivals please get in touch.