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Offside in the office?

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The recent news of the sacking of Andy Gray, the well known football commentator/pundit, by his employer Sky Sports, has refuelled the debate about what, if any, is an acceptable level of light -hearted, banter within the workplace – particularly if its tone is sexist.

Gray’s comments about a female assistant referee, Sian Massey, who was officiating in a Premier League match between Wolves and Liverpool, were compounded when it was further revealed that, in a separate incident, he had made inappropriate remarks to a colleague in the studio.

The comments made by Mr Gray, and to a lesser extent, by his colleague and co-presenter Richards Keys – who has now resigned -, have been labeled sexist and many would argue, they have no place in the modern office or workplace.

His contract - believed to be worth £1.7 million per year - was terminated by his employers on grounds of gross misconduct, without notice. It is believed that Gray has already instructed lawyers to fight his case and the world of football will again no doubt be scrutinised and exposed for all its negative traits - not least of which is the amount of money at stake.

A claim for unfair dismissal would only be worth in the region of £60,000 - £70,000, but no doubt Mr Gray and his advisors will be more concerned about a breach of contract claim for his wages over his contract or notice period.

Paul Grindley*, Head of the Employment team at Keeble Hawson LLP looks at the questions the case raises:

“Opinion is divided as to whether or not Mr Gray should have been dismissed and many believe that this is another example of political correctness gone mad and that we should all accept that banter and the odd innocuous remark, if intended in good humour, should be regarded as just that.”

“However, from an employment law angle, employers have a duty to protect staff from discrimination on numerous grounds including of course, their gender. If such a comment were made in the office, the female “victim” or recipient of such remark would have the right to sue not only the perpetrator but also her employer in the Employment Tribunal and if successful would be awarded compensation including an element for injury to feelings.”

“This is why employers are advised to have systems and policies in place and a training regime to educate all employees that certain conduct will not be condoned and is in fact prohibited and will be met with disciplinary sanctions, including dismissal in serious cases.”

Paul adds:

“It should not be forgotten of course that the law on discrimination cuts both ways and women making sexist comments about a male colleague should be treated in exactly the same way. It is no defence for the erring employee to claim that they did not mean any offence as it is the impact upon the victim which is the key factor in deciding whether or not the behaviour complained of amounts to sex discrimination.”

Paul concludes:

“As discrimination law now covers not only sex but race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religious belief and marital/civil partnership status, we all need to be especially vigilant about “off the cuff” remarks made in the workplace in order to avoid causing offence and landing ourselves and our employers in the Employment Tribunal. On the other hand, there are many who take the view that the law has gone too far in this area and that the recent sacking of Andy Gray is clear evidence of this.”

*Paul was asked to comment on the employment Law angle of this story by Real Radio this week and featured on their news bulletins throughout the day.

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