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Employee unlawfully harassed on WhatsApp

The Employment Tribunal has issued a timely reminder to employers of the dangers of social media in the workplace, after finding in Abdi v Deltec International Courier Ltd that the employee had been harassed by her colleagues via WhatsApp.

The employee was a black woman of Somali origin, who wore a headscarf. While completing her duties, she used her colleague’s login details and discovered a WhatsApp chat containing highly offensive and derogatory comments aimed at her race, religion, and sex.

After she complained, she was moved to a different part of the business, and the employer dismissed two of the employees and issued a final written warning to a further two. However, the employee remained uncomfortable at work and resigned.

With the use of WhatsApp and other instant messaging platforms playing an increasing role in working from home, employers should be aware that under the Equality Act 2010 they can be held responsible for inappropriate comments made in such chats, unless they have a “statutory defence”.

The employer admitted liability for harassment regarding these messages, and the Tribunal confirmed the comments in the WhatsApp group amounted to harassment on grounds of race, religion, and sex.

With the use of WhatsApp and other instant messaging platforms playing an increasing role in working from home, employers should be aware that under the Equality Act 2010 they can be held responsible for inappropriate comments made in such chats, unless they have a “statutory defence”.  That means taking “all reasonable steps” to prevent the unlawful conduct happening in the first place. Ways of succeeding with a statutory defence include equal opportunities training and a genuine commitment by management to the company’s anti-harassment policies.

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