Woman awarded £19k after sexual harassment at Christmas party

A woman who was sexually harassed at a work Christmas party has been awarded £18,857 after claims of sexual harassment, victimisation and unfair dismissal.

Designer Shirley Lyons won the case against her former employer furniture company Starplan.

The tribunal found a colleague had hugged her from behind without her consent and made comments about her breasts at a work Christmas party. He also suggested they might have an affair and touched her bottom.

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After complaining about the incident, Lyons said she was victimised by some colleagues and said her employer had failed to protect her, forcing her to resign.

Her complaints of sexual harassment and victimisation were partially upheld and the tribunal panel found her claim of unfair dismissal was well founded. Other lesser claims were not upheld.

Matt Jenkin, employment partner at corporate law firm Moorcrofts, said the tribunal’s findings were unsurprising.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Given the findings of fact in this case, it is little surprise that the industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland found in favour of Mrs Lyons and awarded her significant compensation.”

Lyons was the only female employee at Starplan's Christmas party, which took place at the company's Portadown showroom on 16 December 2017.

Following the incident, she lodged a formal grievance, which was investigated by her line manager. Some of her allegations were dismissed, which Lyons appealed.

At a later meeting, Lyons then raised allegations of victimisation against three of her colleagues including ignoring and excluding her, threatening to “take her down” and intimidating and abusive language and behaviour.

Almost a month later, Lyons felt she could not remain at the company and resigned.

Jenkin said employers must take reasonable steps to minimise the potential for employees to engage in unacceptable behaviours, if they are to avoid liability.

He added: “In this case, it was noted by the tribunal that the company had not put in place any guidelines or instructions for standards of behaviour and the consumption of alcohol for attendees. Without making clear to employees the standards of behaviour expected at work social events, employers will, as was the case here, struggle to convince a tribunal that it took such reasonable steps.”

The intention to instate a statutory code of practice for employers was outlined by the government in 2021 following a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace. This would outline the steps employers need to take to prevent and deal with sexual harassment, and would make employers legally liable even if staff are harassed by third parties, such as customers and clients.

HR magazine's requests for comment from Starplan were declined.