Northern Ireland

Woman awarded £12,293 for sexual harassment at work

Media captionNoeleen McAleenon took the case against her former employer Autism Initiatives NI

A woman who suffered sexual harassment at work has been awarded £12,293 by an industrial tribunal.

Noeleen McAleenon took a case against Autism Initiatives NI in west Belfast, over harassment from a male co-worker during a period of 20 days.

She raised the issue with her employer but resigned over concerns that they had not dealt with it properly.

Ms McAleenon said she was subjected to inappropriate contact and derogatory comments about her sex life.

"I felt extremely degraded and violated and very stressed within the workplace, especially with the nature of the job and it being in the child behaviour unit," she said.

"I felt I couldn't focus on my job and I could no longer perform it to the best of my ability.

"I felt demeaned by the harasser and I felt worthless as a woman, by his comments."

Ms McAleenon and a male co-worker were the only two members of staff on a night shift from 20 January to 9 February 2012.

Ms McAleenon alleged that he sexually harassed her and she made it clear that she did not welcome this behaviour.

On 10 February, Ms McAleenon was suspended from work after an allegation was made that she was sleeping on duty.

This allegation was found to be unsubstantiated and she was told on 5 March that she could return to work.

'Malice'

When Ms McAleenon rang to arrange her return to work, she found that she would again be working alongside the same man. She then lodged a grievance with Autism Initiatives NI outlining incidents of harassment.

Autism Initiatives NI interviewed the man about the alleged incidents.

He admitted that he had touched Ms McAleenon and made comments to her, and while he claimed that it was all done "in fun and banter with no malice", he admitted that some behaviour had been "inappropriate".

Autism Initiatives NI wrote to Ms McAleenon on 6 April to tell her he was going to be disciplined. The decision to issue the man with a 12-month written warning was made on 25 April but not notified to Ms McAleenon.

Unaware of the outcome of the disciplinary action, Ms McAleenon tendered her resignation on 30 April.

The tribunal found there had been a fundamental breach of contract which was sufficiently serious to justify her in tendering her resignation.

The tribunal said that "the constructive dismissal was bound up with the harassment complaint and thus amounted to an act of sex discrimination and was unfair".

"This case illustrates the danger of an employer not being proactive in circumstances where members of staff are known to engage in physical contact; the invasion of someone's space; and to engage in banter which could be construed as sexual harassment," the tribunal said.

Anne McKernan from the Equality Commission said: "This case should remind all employers how important it is to ensure that their policies are actually being implemented and that managers take action when they become aware of problems of harassment.

"As the tribunal said in its decision, these policies must become part of the fabric of the organisation."