A female executive who was bombarded with peach emojis by her boss has been awarded £420,000 after successfully claiming for sex-based harassment and victimisation.
The woman and her boss, who cannot be named, worked for infrastructure company VokerRail. An employment tribunal in Leeds heard that the manager would constantly send the claimant messages containing the peach emoji – widely known to refer to someone’s bottom – despite her rejecting his advances.
The claimant had only recently been hired by the company, and said she felt embarrassed by her manager’s behaviour, which included a suggestion that they move abroad together to start a new business.
She had joined the company in summer 2019 and initially became close friends with her manager. But his behaviour changed and he began to send her suggestive messages, invited her out for one-to-one dinners, called her while drunk and became jealous of her spending time with another male colleague, the tribunal heard.
She sought advice from a friend, who suggested the man, who was married with children, was “behaving like a stalker”.
One text message from the boss said: “In case it’s not obvious I do really like you but I’m not the best at saying so. I’m cool if you don’t feel the same way & I wouldn’t want it to change anything, but just wanted to let you know.”
This was followed by: “Or we could forget I sent that text and carry on as usual?????”
The claimant raised a grievance, but said she was harassed by the managers who investigated her case. She later handed in her resignation following a dispute over pay.
She claimed VolkerRail had declined to raise her salary because she had refused her manager’s advances. The tribunal found that the way the grievance had been investigated had accepted the manager’s defence, essentially siding with him.
Employment judge Joanna Wade said the investigating panel had treated the claimant as a “scheming femme fatale”, perpertrating a female stereotype.
Since her resignation, the woman suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, which the tribunal described as “significant and debilitating”.
Judge Wade added: “It is a very rare case where there are original allegations of harassment or discrimination, and a grievance or appeal process is also found to be discriminatory or harassing, rather than simply unreasonable or poor.
“She remains unable to work and to do ordinary things; she remains unable to tell her parents or family or community what has happened; she is living a fiction that she remains working from her bedroom, when in truth she is unable to get out of bed at times.”
The tribunal upheld her claims for sex-based harassment and victimisation, but a claim of sexual harassment was dismissed as it was filed too late.
The claimant was awarded £419,352, including £24,000 for injury to feelings and £30,000 for psychiatric injury.
Daniel Stander, an employment lawyer at Vedder Price, said the level of compensation awarded in this case reflects the “very significant losses” suffered by the claimant as a result of the harassment.
“The employer was found to have been discriminatory or harassing in the manner in which it conducted the claimant’s grievance process,” he explained. “It was their view that she had only complained about sexual harassment by her manager because the company had not agreed to her ‘unreasonable salary demands’.”
He added: “Conducting an effective workplace investigation can often be the first step towards risk assessment, damage control and brand protection. Sensitive and high-risk employment considerations often come into play in such cases. While it is important to act promptly to avoid unnecessary delay – employers should not sacrifice preparation for speed.
“A properly conducted investigation will enable the employer to make an informed decision after a full consideration of all the relevant facts,” he said. “This case demonstrates that making a decision without first carrying out a reasonable investigation can potentially make that decision unfair or even discriminatory in itself, and leave employers exposed to significant legal and reputational risks.”