First successful claim for sexual orientation discrimination

United Kingdom

An Employment Tribunal has awarded an employee £34,345 in compensation for constructive dismissal, harassment and discrimination in the first successful claim under the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 which came into force on 1 December 2003.

Rob Whitfield was a manager at Cleanaway, a waste disposal company. He was subjected to five months of taunts relating to his homosexuality including being nicknamed "Sebastian" in reference to a camp sit-com character and being referred to as "queen", "queer" and "dear". Much of the mockery came from senior staff; directors of the company presented him with a pink-lettered T-shirt at a conference in front of sixty colleagues and mocked him for ordering a kir royale, which they called a "poofy drink". Despite having received complaints from homosexual staff in the past the company did not stop the taunts.

This case emphasises that derogatory language referring to an employee's sex, race, sexual orientation or disability cannot be dismissed as mere "office banter". Such language infringes the employee's rights, damages workplace morale and can lead to discrimination claims.

Employers must take measures to encourage good practice and to reduce the risk of such claims. Staff handbooks and the behaviour of senior staff should make it clear to employees that derogatory language is unacceptable. Any use of derogatory language or other discriminatory behaviour must be dealt with promptly and effectively, whether or not the person who is the subject of the discrimination makes a complaint.