High profile news stories often do not provide the best examples of how workplace issues should be managed in the real world.
The headlines that erupted after painfully tacky emails, exchanged between Premier League chief Richard Scudamore and his lawyer, were handed to the Sunday Mirror newspaper by Scudamore’s PA provide a good example of why not.
With newspapers hard-wired to peddle heightened levels of outrage and offence it is unclear how this type of behaviour would have been managed under more normal circumstances. The media fallout rolled on for some time while the men’s employers scrambled to try and deal with the issue under the full glare of public scrutiny.
What is clear though is that sexual discrimination has no place in the workplace and businesses must have robust policies in place to deal with it.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 provides legal protection for employees against discrimination in the workplace. Sexual discrimination is one of the nine protected characteristics covered by the Act. Discrimination can be direct or indirect and can include instances of harassment and victimisation.
Sexism may not necessarily constitute direct sexual discrimination under the Equality Act but it may be considered harassment if a person can demonstrate that certain forms of behaviour create an offensive working environment.
The Scudamore story drew attention to a particularly difficult issue for employers when dealing with sexism in the workplace – that of discerning what is private behaviour and what is not.
Both the Premier League and the law firm in question undoubtedly had policies in place to deal with sexual discrimination from employees but in the end neither man faced formal disciplinary action. Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke said that the FA would not take disciplinary action as the comments were made privately. He did however describe the emails as "totally inappropriate".
Discerning what is and is not private communication could be a particularly difficult for employers, particularly given the widespread use of personal smartphones and other technology both in and out of the workplace. Deciding whether sexist communications amount to sexual discrimination is not necessarily simple either.
This story provides a reminder for employees and employers that emails can take on a life of their own once they leave the sender’s inbox. It also provides an insight into some of the difficulties faced by modern organisations in the extent to which they need to manage the behaviour of their employees.
Despite the difficulties, it is important to implement policies to prevent discrimination in the workplace and to have disciplinary procedures to enforce them. If uncertainties arise due to unusual complaints or circumstances, employers and employees should seek legal advice. For specialist advice contact Peter Gourri today by email PGourri@rollingsons.co.uk or telephone 0207 611 4848.