Employment

Recently, I blogged about Hawkins v Universal Utilities Ltd t/a Unicorn. In that case, a Christian call centre employee unsuccessfully claimed religion or belief discrimination following his employer’s alleged instruction to lie to customers. The Employment Appeal Tribunal case of Heafield v Times Newspaper Limited is another interesting judgment in this area.

Mr Heafield was a casual sub-editor at the Times. During the former Pope’s 2010 visit to the UK, the paper was preparing a story about allegations that he had protected a paedophile priest. The story was delayed, and an editor shouted across the newsroom to senior production executives “can anyone tell what’s happening to the… Pope?”

Mr Heafield, a Roman Catholic, was offended by this. He raised an Employment Tribunal claim for harassment on the grounds of his religious belief. When his claim was dismissed, he appealed to the EAT.

The EAT considered the statutory definition of harassment. It noted that to satisfy this, the editor’s outburst must have had either the purpose or effect of: (i) violating Mr Heafield’s dignity; or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him.

The EAT observed that “there was no anti-Catholic purpose” in what the editor shouted: “he simply wanted the article about the Pope and used bad language because he was irritated and under pressure”. Accordingly, requirement (i) of the test was not met.

It also held that even if Mr Heafield “felt his dignity to be violated or that an adverse environment had been created”, this “was not a reasonable reaction” on his part. The EAT observed that “people are not perfect and sometimes use bad language thoughtlessly: a reasonable person would have understood that and made allowance for it”. On this basis, requirement (ii) of the test was not met and the appeal was dismissed.

This case illustrates the importance of context when deciding whether conduct amounts to harassment.

Julie Keir

Practice Development Lawyer at Brodies LLP
As a Practice Development Lawyer Julie is responsible for developing and maintaining Brodies Workbox, our award-winning online HR and employment law resource.
Julie Keir