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Is a man being called bald simply an insult or does it amount to harassment?

Workplace Insults – A new era

A male employee with an exemplary work record of 24 years successfully claimed against his former employer for harassment on the grounds for being called bald during a heated exchange with colleagues at work.  Although the word bald was followed by an expletive the issue in question is whether the insult bald, could amount to sex-based harassment. Lets examine.

The ruling has caused an initial reaction of shock however, this case has advanced discussion into the equal treatment of men and women at work particularly in respect of harassment. For many years, workplace sex-based harassment has very much been associated with women in the workplace however this ruling could mark a real distinguishing line in the proverbial sand for men who also face harassment.

The question for the tribunal was, is a man being called bald simply an insult or does it amount to harassment?

It was accepted that baldness was typically associated with males. Although it was acknowledged that women also suffered with baldness, the predominant connotations of baldness were due to the prevalence in males and so it was determined by the tribunal that it was inherently and intrinsically linked to men.  Interestingly, male baldness can affect all ages across adult males therefore age, another protected characteristic, was not determined to be a factor.

This means that baldness is related to the characteristic of sex. Therefore, when referring to baldness it is much more likely to be in reference to a male than female.

In light of this, it is accepted that baldness predominantly relates to males and the once accepted insult is now captured by the wide legislative definition of harassment. The supervisor’s conduct (calling the employee a “bald C***”) met the definition of harassment.

The definition being, the conduct was unwanted, it was a violation of the employee’s dignity, it created an intimidating environment for him, it was done for that purpose, and it related to the employee’s sex. On this basis, the insult amounted to sex-based harassment.

This ruling could have a transformative effect and effectively begin to rebalance the scales regarding workplace insults. It seems to have caused quite a stir in the mainstream media with many commentators reacting with disbelief; however, from a legal perspective the ruling is inevitable and somewhat overdue. This case is likely to open the doors to other complaints about typical male oriented insults, that have been until now, accepted as banter.

Although this case came about due to a heated exchange, workplace banter has long been a gauntlet of risk for employers.  What seems like horseplay and light-hearted fun can quickly turn into a legal dispute for businesses and therefore it is very important to have a clear policy on workplace conduct and office etiquette. This is particularly pertinent after many swathes of workforces have been working from home and are used to a more relaxed workplace environment.

 The next steps are clear for any business concerned; make sure you have robust harassment and anti -bullying policies, ensure staff are trained on the content of policy documentation and they are enforced appropriately and consistently.

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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