Sainsbury's Held Vicariously Liable for Employee's Sexual Harassment by Colleague

Sainsbury's Held Vicariously Liable for Employee's Sexual Harassment by Colleague


  • Date: Friday 16th August 2019
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In a warning for all employers, Sainsbury’s has been found vicariously liable for an employee’s inappropriate comments and sexual harassment of a colleague because it failed to provide adequate training on equality and harassment issues.

The incident concerned a male employee who made explicit remarks to Tina Houlihan, a female supermarket sales assistant, whilst in the workplace.   After reporting the first incident of inappropriate sexual comments to her supervisor no action was taken.  Then after a second incident the store manager spoke to the male colleague and a meeting was arranged for an apology to be made to Houlihan.  However, no notes were taken of the complaint to the store manager nor was there any record of the apology. 

Two days after the apology, Houlihan approached a store supervisor to make a formal complaint.  The supervisor made notes which were signed by Houlihan.  The matter was investigated but no disciplinary action was taken as it was a case of “one person’s word against another.”

Consequently, Houlihan raised a formal grievance and the male employee was dismissed for gross misconduct and breaching Sainsbury’s fair treatment, equality, diversity and inclusion policies and use of inappropriate language when speaking to Houlihan.

The grievance outcome found that the male employee had made most of the comments but did not make any reference to a threat of rape which Houlihan claimed had been made.  Houlihan immediately brought claims of sexual harassment against both Sainsbury’s and the male employee.  She also made a complaint of direct sex discrimination against Sainsbury’s.

The tribunal ruled that Houlihan had suffered sexual harassment by the male employee and that Sainsbury’s was vicariously liable for the actions of their employee.

The judge highlighted the failure of Sainsbury’s to ensure training for employees and managers covered equality issues.  The judge highlighted that managers did not recognise the importance of escalating inappropriate comments and behaviour through the right channels.

Key Learning for Employers

  • Commence awareness training on equality and harassment at the start of employment
  • Ensure all employees know how to report allegations of harassment
  • Train all managers on how to deal with allegations of harassment
  • Ensure refresher awareness training is conducted on a regular (ideally annual) basis e.g. tool box talk
  • Keep records of all training delivered
  • Take detailed notes on all concerns that are raised
  • Close out all issues in writing

Source: Gavin Parrott


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