Dignity at Work

The recent case of Walsh v Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) provides a reminder to all employers of their obligations to ensure that the work environment is free of all forms of bullying, harassment and discrimination and to ensure they provide a clear complaints mechanism and to efficiently investigate complaints actually made. The case involved harassment by a group of students of an employee (a Lecturer) and how the organisation responded to complaints by that employee.

In one incident on October 24th, 2014, Ms Walsh said she had been subjected to inappropriate comments from a group of male agricultural students. She informed the Head of Department of this experience and advised her that the behaviour had the purpose and effect of violating her dignity and creating an intimidating and hostile working environment.

In November 2014, Ms Walsh advised WIT that the disruption in class continued and WIT subsequently split the class. Ms Walsh claimed that the college took no adequate steps to ensure that sexual harassment, harassment and bullying did not take place in her workplace. Ms Walsh stopped teaching the group of students in March 2015 but the Waterford native who has lectured since 1999 continues to lecture at the college.

The Labour Court ordered WIT to pay Ms Walsh compensation of €10,000 for “the distress and the effects of sexual harassment and harassment based on her gender”. In awarding compensation to the employee, the Labour Court found that the employer did not do enough to prevent the sexual harassment of the academic by the students and the following factors were identified as influential:

  • Difficulty in identifying the correct complaints procedure. The employee claimed it was difficult to locate on the employer’s website.
  • Failure by the employer to actively promote the relevant policy or that there was a strategy in place to bring policies and content to the attention of students.
  • Initial delay in progressing the complaint.

While the Court found that while WIT did take some steps in response to Ms Walsh’s complaint, it “cannot be found to have taken such steps as were reasonably practicable to avoid a recurrence of sexual harassment and harassment based on gender”.

The Court also ordered WIT to review the operation of its Dignity and Respect policy and in particular the effectiveness of arrangements in place to communicate the policy to students and, as part of those arrangements, to communicate WIT’s intolerance of sexual harassment and harassment based on gender.

The case serves a useful reminder to all employers about the duty to have clear and accessible complaint policies, the duty to investigate promptly and the need to act quick and meaningfully to prevent further occurrences of inappropriate incidents.

Voltedge Management delivers Dignity at Work workshops to organisations providing an opportunity to enhance the awareness and importance of Dignity in the Workplace. Contact us on 01 5252914 or email info@voltedge.ie to find out more about our workshops.

Liz O’Donovan, Senior HR Business Consultant