The LinkedIn message sent to Charlotte Proudman, a human rights barrister, in response to her request to “link in” with a solicitor has caused a storm in the media over recent days.
For those who missed it, the message read:
“Charlotte, delighted to connect, I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!
“You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen. Always interesting to understand people’s skills and how we might work together.”
Ms Proudman’s point in response to the solicitor’s comments about her photograph was that it was her professional skills that she wished to be recognised for and not for the way that she looks. She suggested that focusing on a woman’s physical appearance was a way of exercising power over women.
Commenting on the case, Guardian journalist, Gaby Hinsliff, said there are three rules for giving and receiving complements. Indeed, the article provided three top tips and suggested that it is all about “tone and context”.
She wrote: “From someone junior at work, ‘nice dress’ can be smarmy; from someone senior, it can be faintly pervy. But from someone who has always treated you as an intellectual equal, isn’t visibly panting or staring down your cleavage and generally isn’t a jerk? I reckon we can all live with that.”
Whatever your view on the case is, Ms Proudman chose to resort to social media to express her outrage and perhaps to punish the solicitor for his comment through shaming him publicly.
It is presumed the argument put forward by Ms Proudman is that the comment would not have been made had she been a man.
As far as we are aware, there is and was no direct relationship between Ms Proudman and the solicitor and therefore she took to social media to express her dissatisfaction rather than utilise other means. If Ms Proudman had, however, been specifically engaged by the solicitor’s firm to carry out work on their behalf there might be a claim, or perhaps of more relevance, if their relationship was within the workplace (and they worked for the same employer) there could be a claim with one option that would have been available to Ms Proudman in those circumstances would have been to issue proceedings against her employer for discrimination in the form of harassment.
An employer will often be held responsible for the discriminatory actions of its employees. There are nine protected characteristics which are protected by the law, sex being one of them. Discrimination can take many forms, one of which is known as harassment which involves unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an offensive, intimidating or hostile environment and is related to any of the characteristics (except marital/civil partnership status and pregnancy/maternity).
Anything done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as having also been done by the employer, regardless of whether the employee’s acts were done with the employer’s knowledge or approval, unless an employer can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from committing the discriminatory act, or from doing anything of that description.
Reasonable steps include:
- – Having and implementing an equal opportunities policy and an anti-harassment and bullying policy, and reviewing those policies as is appropriate.
- – Making all employees aware of the policies and their implications.
- – Training managers and supervisors in equal opportunities and harassment issues.
- – Taking steps to deal effectively with complaints, including taking appropriate disciplinary action.
Another issue which is relevant in this case is the use of social media to air grievances and express opinions.
A thorough and detailed social media policy will enable an employer to take disciplinary action against employees who speak out inappropriately on social media, even if comments are made outside of working hours.
If there is no policy in place or if employees are not aware of the policy, employers will struggle to demonstrate that any disciplinary action on the back of social media comments is fair. This could lead to unfair dismissal complaints being brought in an Employment Tribunal.
Irrespective of whether there is a social media policy in place or not, it is open to an employer to take action against an employee (including the solicitor in this case) if it considers that the comments have caused the firm damage. It remains to be seen whether this has occurred here or not.
This case is an important reminder that when taking on new employees to make sure that they are aware what is expected of them in terms of their behaviour both inside and outside of work and the steps that will be taken if employees behave inappropriately. At the very least, written policies should be in place and these should be drawn to the attention of new starters and training on equality issues should be undertaken on a regular basis.
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