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Employer Pays High Price for Turning Blind Eye to 'Toxic' Office Culture

Banter is one thing, but employers who turn a blind eye to workplaces descending into toxic arenas of discriminatory abuse can expect to reap a bitter harvest. That was certainly so in one case in which an Employment Tribunal (ET) ordered a company to pay substantial compensation to a gay former employee who was on the receiving end of a torrent of homophobic slurs (Robson v NGP Utilities Ltd).

The ET found that the culture in the office where the man worked as an energy consultant was accurately described as toxic, involving daily use of homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic language, in which some managers and senior employees actively engaged, treating it as acceptable banter.

No disciplinary action was taken against anyone involved and, although the company had in place what it described as a zero-tolerance equality and diversity policy, no effective measures were taken to achieve that objective. As a result of the foul-mouthed homophobic abuse to which the man was repeatedly subjected, he said that doing his job had become a living nightmare. He eventually resigned.

In upholding his complaints of harassment due to his sexual orientation, constructive dismissal and victimisation, the ET found that he had suffered a very serious course of repeated and frequent homophobic abuse committed by, amongst others, senior employees and managers over a period of six months.

Also upholding his disability discrimination claim, the ET noted that, due to his dyslexia, he visibly struggled to meet the company's targets. Instead of supporting him and making reasonable adjustments to cater for his disability, he was shouted at and humiliated in front of colleagues to the point where he could no longer cope with the treatment and resigned.

The ET found that the company had conducted the proceedings in an intimidating, oppressive and high-handed manner. In the face of clear evidence, it had steadfastly chosen to stand by the perpetrators as they unfairly sought to portray the man as a liar. The company had subjected the man to post-employment victimisation in an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing his harassment complaints and it was to his credit that he was not deterred from doing so.

The man was awarded £20,000 in compensation for injury to his feelings and a further £10,000 in aggravated damages. Together with interest, his total award came to £36,707. Given the company's conduct of the proceedings, the ET also took the rare step of ordering it to pay a penalty of £18,353 pursuant to Section 12A of the Employment Tribunals Act 1996.

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Zero-tolerance equality and diversity policies in the workplace are meaningless unless they are effectively implemented and monitored. Our expert employment lawyers can advise.
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