sexual-harrassmentA woman has been awarded £12,293 after an industrial tribunal ruled that she suffered sexual harassment at work.

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

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

It was heard that Ms McAleenon was subjected to inappropriate contact and derogatory comments about her sex life.

She commented:

“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.

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

On a night shift from 20 January to 9 February 2012 Ms McAleenon and a male co-worker were the only two members of staff working, and Ms McAleenon alleged that her male co-worker sexually harassed her. She also stated that 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. However this allegation was found to be unsubstantiated and she was informed on 5 March that she could return to work.

On discussing her return to work, Ms McAleenon discovered that she would again be working alongside the same man, and lodged a grievance with Autism Initiatives NI, outlining incidents of harassment.

It was revealed that Autism Initiatives NI interviewed the man about the alleged incidents and 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”.

On 6 April, Autism Initiatives NI wrote to Ms McAleenon to inform her that her male co-worker was going to be disciplined, but the decision to issue the man with a 12-month written warning on 25 April was not alerted to Ms McAleenon.

Without knowing the outcome of the disciplinary action, Ms McAleenon resigned on 30 April.

The tribunal ruled that there had been a fundamental breach of contract which was sufficiently serious to justify her in tendering her resignation, and explained that “the constructive dismissal was bound up with the harassment complaint and thus amounted to an act of sex discrimination and was unfair”.

The Tribunal said:

“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.”

Commenting on the case, 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.”