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The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has upheld an injury to feelings award of £14,000 for sexual harassment.
In this case, the claimant was employed as a Paralegal at a firm of solicitors. After being subject to sexual harassment by her boss, the sole solicitor in the practice, her employment was terminated after six weeks when she was purportedly made redundant after rejecting his advances. She brought a tribunal claim for sexual harassment, which was upheld.
While her former employer did not deny the harassment at appeal, he nevertheless argued that the injury to feelings award was excessive. The employer argued that the level of award was disproportionate to the amount of time the claimant had been employed, and that her boss' conduct had been 'gauche ... rather than aggressive'.
Where a tribunal makes an award for injury to feelings, the award will fall within one of three bands, depending on the seriousness of the conduct:
the lower band, appropriate for less serious cases such as one-off incidents or isolated events, ranges from £600 to £6000;
the middle band, appropriate for more serious cases, ranges from £6000 to £18,000; and
the higher band is used in the most exceptional of cases, where there has been a lengthy campaign of harassment. It ranges from £18,000 to £30,000.
The claimant's award fell in the middle band. Her employer suggested that the lower end of the middle band would be more appropriate, with the award being limited to £10,000 at most.
The EAT held that, while the award was perhaps on the high side, it was not manifestly excessive as to constitute an error of law. The EAT therefore held that it would not be justified in interfering with the tribunal's original decision.
In addition, the EAT confirmed that, in future, tribunals will be able to adjust award bands so as to take account of inflation, as already happens in personal injury cases.
The compensation award in this case might seem high, given the short period of time the claimant was employed. However, the tribunal took into account the wider context such as the impact of her boss' conduct on the claimant's self-esteem and her future career in law. This case is a clear example of how seriously tribunals consider harassment and demonstrates that it is insufficient to simply downplay the conduct.
Where employers become aware of allegations of harassment in their workforce, prompt action should be taken to address and resolve the issue to the mutual satisfaction of all parties in order to avoid potentially high compensation awards such as the award in this case.