Friday, 6 August 2010

"Verbal harassment" lawsuit could backfire

In The Times today there is a report about "the first local case of verbal sexual harassment at the workplace" - a company had to pay €2000 after a male employee made a joke/comment with sexual connotations to a female colleague.

I don't know enough about this specific case to comment about the incident - for all I know this may have been the latest in a long series of verbal abuse always directed at the same person, or the woman in question had made her feelings clear about such kinds of joke and been ignored. The manner in which such a comment was made is also relevant - jokes can be made with malice or could be just a light hearted attempt at humour.

My main concern is about the many people who are considering this as a precedent which should apply to all cases where male workers make any kind of sexual joke or comment to female workers. If this is the case, I think the situation could backfire.

If someone is selecting people for a job, will they now weigh the added risk of lawsuits against the company when they're looking at a female applicant's CV? Because let's face it - the likelihood of a similar lawsuit being instituted by a man is much smaller.

Equality is all well and good, but the last thing that is needed for women in the workplace is to put out the message that employing women is an added liability to the company. Harassment is wrong, and employers should indeed put a stop to any that is going on - not because of lawsuits but because it is harming some members of their staff. On the other hand, we should avoid going to the other extreme where any kind of joke made to, or in the presence of, a woman is a risky business. That could easily turn into a situation where employers avoid having women on the team, or where the team feels safer excluding female colleagues from conversations - or even that the very presence of women has caused a damper on workplace relations.

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