£19,500 Harassment Compensation for “Vulnerable” Zero Hours Worker
A zero hours worker has been awarded £19,500 compensation for injury to feelings after being harassed by her boss. In setting the level of the award, the employment tribunal took into account her vulnerability and the perfunctory nature of the employer’s investigation of her grievance.
In Southern v Britannia Hotels Ltd, S was a waitress working in a hotel. She was 22 years old and had a history of mental health issues. She was harassed by her boss, N, for approximately eight months. This comprised touching her bottom, kissing her neck and asking her questions about her sex life. When she complained to a line manager, she was told to lodge a written complaint. No further action was taken and S did not put in a grievance. The harassment continued.
At a meeting to discuss a separate issue of alleged bullying by another colleague, S informed the hotel manager of the sexual harassment by N. She had not made a written complaint as she was concerned that her shifts would be reduced as a result. The hotel manager told her to lodge a formal complaint, which she did. He carried out as cursory investigation, did not seek detailed particulars of the harassment and only interviewed a witness to the harassment for 10 minutes. The witness confirmed that N had touched S's bottom and kissed her neck. N was interviewed and denied the alleged conduct.
The hotel manager concluded that certain “mannerisms and behaviour” by another member of staff were inappropriate. No disciplinary action was taken against N although he was told to desist from his behaviour in future.
S issued a harassment claim in the employment tribunal. Following receipt, the company decided that the complaint should be re-investigated by a new HR manager. N again denied the allegations and the evidence from the previous witness evaporated. The HR manager did not read the previous investigation report and so was unaware that the witness had given inconsistent evidence. She concluded that there was no conclusive evidence that the majority of incidents had occurred. Despite finding that no harassment had taken place, N was required to attend a bullying and harassment course.
The employment tribunal upheld S’s harassment claim and awarded £19,500 compensation for injury to feelings which falls in the upper Vento band (which ranges from £18,000 to £30,000). The tribunal considered that the harassment was not of the worst type (suggesting that it should not fall in the upper band) but noted that S was very young and vulnerable due to her metal health. The harassment was made worse by the fact that it consisted of an abuse of power by her manager. Had the tribunal simply been looking at the conduct over the eight month period, and taking S’s vulnerability into account, it would have awarded compensation in the middle Vento band (which ranges from £6,000 to £18,000). However, due to the employer’s dismissive and dilatory approach to the investigation it increased the compensation so that it fell into the upper Vento band.
This case demonstrates the importance of carrying out a thorough and unbiased investigation into harassment complaints. The tribunal was critical of the fact that the initial informal complaint was ignored. Had the matter been addressed at that point it could have been nipped in the bud. It was also critical of the perfunctory nature of the hotel manager’s investigation which it found was clearly designed to find a means of dismissing S’s grievance. Matters did not improve with the HR manager’s investigation, as she failed to familiarise herself with anything that had gone before and carry out a proper review. These factors resulted in compensation which would ordinarily have fallen in the middle Vento band being increased to fall within the top Vento band. The inadequacy of the investigation was also a reason why the employer failed in its defence that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination occurring.
Although in terms of vulnerability the tribunal focussed mainly on S’s youth and her mental health issues, it did on a number of occasions refer to her vulnerability as a zero hours worker and her fear that her shifts would be reduced if she complained. Going forward, we may well see more arguments from zero hours workers that compensation should be increased on account of their vulnerability.
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