Male teaching assistant wins sexual harassment tribunal after 'Speedos' comment

Comments made by the respondent were treated as banter among colleagues, the tribunal heard

A female headteacher sexually harassed a male teaching assistant by repeatedly commenting on his “fit” body, an employment tribunal ruled.

Nikolaz Papashvili, a teaching assistant at Belvue School in Ealing, west London, accused the headteacher Shelagh O’Shea of sexual harassment after she made “inappropriate comments” about his “fit body and his Speedos”. 

The tribunal report noted that similar comments made by a senior man are regarded as unacceptable and “such comments made by a female headteacher towards a younger teaching assistant should now similarly be regarded as unacceptable”. 

Danielle Ayres, employment partner at Primas Law, told HR magazine that this case showed that all complaints of sexual harassment at work should be taken seriously.

She said: “Sexual harassment is never acceptable. This case highlights the importance of taking all complaints seriously, whether they be against senior or junior personnel.

“This case is unusual as it is brought by a male, rather than a female. 

“Sexual harassment clearly applies to individuals of any gender, but these types of cases do tend to feature complaints by women rather than men, and in my experience, women are much more likely to raise complaints than men.”

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On 11 November 2020, Papashvili made a complaint of sexual harassment against O’Shea, in which he referred to unspecified incidents in staff meetings where O'Shea repeatedly referred to his "fit body", as well as an incident in June 2020 where the respondent told him she wanted him to take her to meet his parents. 

The tribunal heard from the school caretaker that these comments were treated as banter among Papashvili's colleagues.

This followed a months-long dispute regarding the reason for Papashvili’s absence in July and September in 2020. 

Papashvili issued a sick note to O’Shea that claimed he was off sick with work-related stress from 2 September 2020 to 27 September 2020, which the respondent named “gross misconduct” in a letter on Friday 6 November 2020.

A disciplinary investigation into Papashvili’s absence commenced on 13 November and on 15 December Papashvili was told he was dismissed for gross misconduct and loss of trust and confidence.

Michael Thomson, employment litigation services lead at Foot Anstey, noted that employers are obliged to protect employees from sexual harassment. 

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Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “An employers needs to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment in the workplace. 

“If it cannot show that it did so it will likely be vicariously liable for the harasser's actions, so will be liable to pay any compensation due to the harassed employee and have to deal with the potential reputational implications of a tribunal judgment against it."

He added: “Employers should carry out regular training, have clear policies and procedures regarding how employees are expected to behave in place and have a clear and obvious no-tolerance stance to sexual harassment, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.”

An October 2022 tribunal hearing found that Papashvili was unfairly dismissed and subject to seven incidents of sexual harassment between 2017 and 2019. 

In March 2024, a remedy hearing awarded Papashvili £9,309 in compensation, which was significantly reduced because the tribunal found that Papashvili had lied to both the tribunal and the school about details of his absence and his complaints. 

The report noted that the claimant "did not pursue these matters promptly because we determine that he did not regard the headteacher's behaviour as either particularly serious or worrying, which will make any award modest".

It added that the fact Papashvili did not raise grievances in prior years "indicates that he raised this issue as retaliation towards the headteacher because of his negative treatment".