Beware of the emoji!

A female executive who was bombarded with peach emojis by her boss has been awarded £420,000 after successfully claiming for sex-based harassment and victimisation.

An employment tribunal in Leeds heard that the manager would constantly send the employee messages containing the peach emoji – widely known to refer to someone’s bottom – despite her rejecting his advances.  The employee had only recently been hired by the company, and said she felt embarrassed by her manager’s behaviour, which included a suggestion that they move abroad together to start a new business.

She had joined the company in summer 2019 and initially became close friends with her manager. But his behaviour changed and he began to send her suggestive messages, invited her out for one-to-one dinners, called her while drunk and became jealous of her spending time with another male colleague, the tribunal heard.

The employee raised a grievance, but said she was harassed by the managers who investigated her case. She later handed in her resignation following a dispute over pay. She claimed the company had declined to raise her salary because she had refused her manager’s advances. The tribunal found that the way the grievance had been investigated had accepted the manager’s defence, essentially siding with him.

Since her resignation, the woman suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, which the tribunal described as “significant and debilitating”. The judge stated: “It is a very rare case where there are original allegations of harassment or discrimination, and a grievance or appeal process is also found to be discriminatory or harassing, rather than simply unreasonable or poor”.

The tribunal upheld her claims for sex-based harassment and victimisation. The claimant was awarded £419,352, including £24,000 for injury to feelings and £30,000 for psychiatric injury.

Be warned that a properly conducted investigation will enable the employer to make an informed decision after a full consideration of all the relevant facts.  The circumstances evidence that making a decision without first carrying out a reasonable investigation can potentially make that decision unfair or even discriminatory in itself, and leave employers exposed to significant legal and reputational risks.

Contact 121 HR Solutions on 0800 995 121 to discuss training in conducting workplace investigations.

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