Woman awarded £19k in damages after harassment at staff Christmas party

16 March 2023, 15:36 | Updated: 16 March 2023, 15:55

A woman who was harassed at a staff Christmas party has been awarded nearly £19,000 in damages.
A woman who was harassed at a staff Christmas party has been awarded nearly £19,000 in damages. Picture: PA / Google Maps

By Chris Samuel

A woman has been awarded nearly £19k in damages after being harassed by a colleague at a staff Christmas party.

Shirley Lyons, who worked as a designer and sales consultant with furniture firm Starplan in Portadown, Northern Ireland, between 2013 and 2018, was awarded £18,857 in damages after her complaints of sexual harassment and victimisation were partially upheld by an industrial tribunal.

The panel that found her claim of unfair dismissal was well founded but lesser claims were not upheld.

The tribunal heard that Ms Lyons was the only female employee present at the firm's Christmas party in its Portadown showroom on December 16 2017, along with six male employees.

Ms Lyons, 60, said that when the party moved onto a restaurant, she was subjected to unwanted sexual attention.

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The tribunal found that one of her colleagues had made comments about Ms Lyons’ breasts and cleavage and hugged her from behind without her consent.

She claimed he also suggested to her that that they might have an affair and touched her bottom in the restaurant.

Shirley Lyons
Shirley Lyons. Picture: PA

Ms Lyons told BBC News NI she was "still in bewilderment" and "totally disgusted" by her coworker's behaviour.

"I made it very clear before I left the restaurant that I was not happy, I was really angry," she said.

The tribunal was “satisfied that these matters amount to both verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature”.

She subsequently complained to her line manager and lodged a formal written grievance.

The tribunal also upheld a number of complaints from Ms Lyons that she had been victimised by three colleagues following her complaint.

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This included ignoring and excluding her, threatening to “take her down” and intimidating and abusive language and behaviour, the panel heard.

Ms Lyons resigned from the company in April 2018.

The case was heard back in 2018, but an anonymity order has now been revoked following an appeal by Ms Lyons.

Ms Lyons said: “I am pleased the case is now over, this has put huge pressure on me and my family and I’m so thankful for their support.

“I’m also glad the tribunal agreed to lift the anonymity order, it’s important for me to be free to talk about that night and what happened afterwards.

Starplan Bedroom Furniture in Portadown, Northern Ireland
Starplan Bedroom Furniture in Portadown, Northern Ireland. Picture: Google Maps

“We were on a night out, something that we had done in previous years without incident, so I was surprised and upset by what happened.

“Initially, I was determined not to let it ruin my night, and I did my best to make it clear I had had enough of this behaviour on the night, but it ended up a very bad experience.

“What happened afterwards, though, was worse – my workplace no longer felt safe for me and I felt physically sick going into work in the mornings.

“I stood up to behaviour that shouldn’t be happening in any workplace and my manager, and my employer totally failed to protect me both from the harassment and from being victimised afterwards.”

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Geraldine McGahey, chief commissioner at the Equality Commission, which supported Ms Lyon's case, said: “Work parties and outings can be an important element of reward, recognition and team building.

“But, like any other area of work, employers must ensure everyone attending is safe and their dignity is respected, and if that doesn’t happen, and staff have cause to complain, they must be protected from victimisation.”

Starplan told BBC News NI that it regretted "any distress caused to Ms Lyons".

The firm said it "vehemently opposes any form of harassment,", and acknowledged that the case "draws attention to key learnings and responsibilities for every employer in relation to staff gatherings".

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