The continuing tide of lewd emails circulating in Yorkshires workplaces could leave the regions 170,000 businesses facing unlimited compensation payouts, a top Yorkshire lawyer has warned.
Simon Coates, national head of employment law at Irwin Mitchell, based in Queen Street, Leeds, is concerned up to 20 per cent of employers in Yorkshire still turn a blind eye to inappropriate emails from colleagues. This is despite new guidance from the Equal Opportunities Commission confirming they can constitute sexual harassment and, therefore, cost companies dearly.
He said: Even when an offensive email is not sent directly to a member of staff, but circulated to others within the same workplace, it can be recognised as harassment. A prime example of this is workers viewing pornographic images on a computer screen next to colleagues who find them offensive.
Sexual harassment by email also includes sending messages containing innuendo or commenting on a colleagues appearance.
Mr Coates went on to say that as harassment via email is silent it could easily be indistinguishable from normal work and harder for employers to spot.
He said: Whilst Yorkshire bosses can't always tell what staff are sending via email this excuse doesn't stand up in the eyes of the law, which expects companies to take proactive steps to protect their staff, such as putting formal policies in place and training.
Earlier this year, Kirklees Council put forward a new email policy for its staff after revealing it was investigating more than 50 cases of email misuse and had been dragged into a child porn scandal, when a worker downloaded more than 1,000 indecent images.
Email employment policies
Mr Coates said: When introducing policies, firms should include examples of unacceptable behaviour, including material sent via email and appearing on their computer screens, whilst offering assurances confidentiality will be afforded to every complaint. They should also make clear the standards to be maintained and action to be taken against offenders.
It is also important for companies who already take an active stance against email misuse to back up their actions with formal policies and good practice to protect themselves against unfair dismissal claims - which can include warning staff of that active stance.
Last year Holmfirth resident Helen Brearley was awarded £26,000 compensation after her Nottingham employer fired her for sending racy emails, but failed to give any warnings her emails, mobile phone and internet were being monitored.
The latest statistics from the Equal Opportunities Commission suggest there is on average one successful sexual harassment claim each week in the UK, but only a small proportion of people affected make a claim, hiding the true extent of the problem.
Mr Coates said: In addition to risking adverse tribunal rulings and potentially unlimited compensation payouts, employers face significant recruitment costs when replacing staff who have left after experiencing harassment. This can range from £1,000 for a manual worker up to £25,000 or more for a senior manager or director.
Any companies concerned their sexual harassment or email policies may not be comprehensive can contact the Irwin Mitchell team on 0370 1500 100.