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No Laughing Matter: What a Rude Joke Could Cost Your Business

The Claimant in the recent case of Prewett v Green King Services Ltd was the Manager of the “Big Tree” pub owned by Green King. After failing a food hygiene audit, Mr Bentley, the Respondent’s Risk Manager, and Mr Gaunt, the Respondent’s Business Development Manager, visited the Claimant’s pub to discuss the remedial measures put in place.

At this meeting, Mr Bentley asked Mr Gaunt if he knew what a “growler” was. Upon seeing the Claimant approaching, Mr Bentley said to her: “If you know, don’t tell him”. Mr Bentley then told a joke about a man saying: “When I ask for a growler I don’t want a pork pie”, the punchline being that a “growler” is Yorkshire slang for pork pie, but also a lewd term for female genitalia. This definition was unknown to the Claimant at the time.

The Claimant later found out the meaning of the word from a colleague, and was also informed of the same by her daughter, who had Googled the term. The Claimant felt unhappy that Mr Bentley had used this language.

Mr Bentley visited again on 13 August to review the pub’s kitchen standards. When asked by the Claimant: “What do you want to see first?”, Mr Bentley responded: “Depends what’s on offer?”, which further irritated the Claimant. He then touched the Claimant’s shoulder before conducting the kitchen inspection.

A month later, another colleague, Mr Ambler, came to inspect the pub’s kitchen. Upon seeing some items left out on a worktop, Mr Ambler asked the Claimant to “be Phil Bentley” and consider the view of the work surface. The Claimant took great offence at this and demanded that Mr Ambler leave the pub. Later the same day, she called Mr Gaunt to give notice of her resignation, citing Mr Bentley’s sexual harassment as the reason for her decision.

The Claimant raised a formal grievance, and investigation meetings were held by the Respondent. Mr Bentley denied that he had told a rude joke, insisting that his comment had been about a type of beer jug known as a “growler”. The Claimant’s grievance and appeal were rejected, and shortly after, the Claimant issued her claim for sexual harassment and unfair dismissal.

The Tribunal disagreed with the outcome of the Respondent’s investigations and found that the Claimant had been sexually harassed and awarded her £5000. Her claim for unfair dismissal did not succeed as the Tribunal did not consider that Mr Bentley’s conduct was “calculated to destroy or seriously damage trust and confidence”.

What does this mean for you or your business?
This case demonstrates that one-off inappropriate comments can be considered sexual harassment even if the intention is not to offend and even if the “victim” does not voice their objection to the unwanted behaviour. In this instance, it is unlikely that the perpetrator intended to harass the Claimant, but the Tribunal still found that Mr Bentley’s use of sexual innuendo was “conduct of a sexual nature and therefore prohibited conduct” within the Equality Act 2010. Although the Tribunal understood that Mr Bentley’s primary propose was humour, they found that the comments “violat[ed] the claimant’s dignity” and “creat[ed] a hostile work environment for her”.

What do you need to be doing now?

Particularly in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, businesses should be doubling down on equality and diversity training for employees. Employees should be reminded that inappropriate comments, including those made in jest, could be interpreted as harassment.

Recommended Reading

Judgment: Employment Tribunal Judgment

'Salad dodger' and other insults in the office - harassment or 'good natured jibing'?

Age discrimination - drawing a line under "banter" in the workplace


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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