News & Insights

Sexual Harassment via Coded Email?

A recent sexual harassment claim has garnered attention for its unusual accusations regarding emails and file names.

Sexual harassment at work is specifically outlawed as a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It is, of course, a topical area, with high profile claims reported in the media frequently.

What is sexual harassment?

According to the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment occurs where:

  • Person A engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.
  • This conduct has the purpose or effect of either violating person B’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for person B.

Examples of sexual harassment may include:

  • flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance
  • asking questions about someone’s sex life
  • telling sexually offensive jokes, making sexual comments or jokes about someone’s sexual orientation or gender reassignment
  • displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content
  • touching someone against their will (for example, hugging them)
  • sexual assault or rape

Sexual harassment at work

In a workplace context, the law protects employees, workers, job applicants and apprentices. Employers should do all they reasonably can to protect their workers from sexual harassment and must take steps to prevent it from happening, including training their staff, assessing risks and creating a culture of zero tolerance.

If sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, employers can be held responsible for their employee’s actions. They also have a duty of care to look after the wellbeing of their employees and should take all employee complaints seriously by investigating any report made and following the ACAS Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

In May, Karina Gasparova, an IT worker at essDOCS, sought to take her employer to an employment tribunal for sexual harassment, among other claims. She argued that her boss’ use of “xx”, “yy” and “????” in an email amounted to coded messages asking for sexual relations with her. Gasparova’s boss had also named a file ‘AJG’, which Gasparova claimed was another coded message, standing for ‘A Jumbo Genital’ – ignoring the fact that her boss’ initials were ‘AJG’. Gasparova also alleged that her boss had tried to “chat her up” on work calls, would stare at her, and had said “have a nice evening” to her in an “alluring” voice.

The tribunal found that Gasparova had identified “sinister” motives behind “innocuous” interactions, and that she had a “skewed perception of everyday events”. The tribunal also said that Gasparova “demonstrated a tendency to make extraordinary allegations without evidence”. Unsurprisingly, her claims were rejected, and she was ordered to pay £5,000 of costs to essDOCS.

However, while Gasparova’s accusations regarding the coded messages may come across as a little bizarre, her claims regarding unwanted conversation and staring may well have given rise to a stronger sexual harassment claim, if she had had the evidence to demonstrate their sexual nature. Indeed, even the “coded” messages could have been seen as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, were it not for the fact that there were innocent, common-sense explanations for the emails and file names.

If you require legal advice in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace, please contact our employment team at [email protected]