Coarse Language in the Workplace - ET Upholds Harassment Claim

Even if the kind of coarse language used in traditionally male-dominated workplaces was once acceptable, it certainly is not today. An Employment Tribunal (ET) made that point in awarding substantial damages to an office administrator who was harassed by her foul-mouthed line manager (Chard v Jasper Byrne Ltd).

The woman worked at a lambskin processing plant, next to an abattoir. She resigned after less than a year in the job, citing what she viewed as her manager's unacceptable, unpleasant and harassing behaviour. She subsequently launched ET proceedings against her former employer, alleging harassment and direct sex discrimination.

Ruling on her case, the ET noted that the plant was, by its nature, a coarse working environment where industrial language was commonplace. The manager was wont to make lewd remarks and regularly referred to her in insulting terms. His suggestion that the workplace was free from swearing was frankly incredible. Five of her harassment complaints were upheld, all of which were either related to her sex, or of a sexual nature, or both.

The manager's conduct was unwanted, in that she had made it clear that she found it upsetting and wished it would stop. His behaviour met the statutory definition of harassment in that it related to a protected characteristic – her sex – and had the purpose or effect of violating her dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading and humiliating environment for her.

The ET rejected her claim of direct sex discrimination on the basis that the manager behaved in a similar manner in the presence of both men and women. It was not a case in which she had been treated less favourably than an actual or hypothetical male comparator. It further noted that she had not complained about the manager's conduct prior to her resignation, which coincided with the discovery of a significant bookkeeping error on her part.

The ET acknowledged that the harassment she endured was towards the lower end of the scale of gravity. It nevertheless ordered the employer to pay her £10,000 for injury to her feelings. Together with £500 in respect of lost earnings, plus interest, her total award came to £11,976.