UK woman claims she is so good looking it invokes sexual harassment: another warning for small businesses

Being too good looking to come to work sounds like a completely made-up excuse, but a London woman is now saying her beauty is not only holding her back – it’s caused discrimination in the workplace.

Laura Fernee worked at a medical research lab between 2008 and 2011. She’s now sparked some controversy by suggesting her appearance held her back.

“The truth is my good looks have caused massive problems for me when it comes to employment, so I’ve made the decision that employment just isn’t for me at the moment. It’s not my fault… I can’t help the way I look,” she told the Daily Mail.

Fernee says she was “constantly asked out”, and male colleagues continually left romantic gifts on her desk.

“Male colleagues were only interested in me for how I looked,” she says.

While the story is unusual, somewhat amusing and could be part of a marketing ploy for Fernee’s upcoming book, it nevertheless raises significant questions about how romantic interaction should play out in the workplace.

While business owners may have a good idea about what constitutes sexual harassment, TressCox partner Rachel Drew says when it comes to romantic approaches, the situation can become ambiguous.

“Sexual harassment is defined differently around the country, but it generally refers to unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which is intimidating or threatening to the subject.

“To be unlawful, it does have to have a sexual element to it,” she says.

As a result, a gesture such as leaving a box of chocolates on a desk may not necessarily be considered sexual, and therefore isn’t necessarily a breach of sexual harassment laws.

However, a pillar of Fernee’s complaint is that she was the target of several comments about her body. Drew points out these would most likely be sexual in nature.

“That could be interpreted to be sexual, and if they are made in a context which is seen as threatening or intimidating, they can be a breach of the law.”

Drew points to the David Jones sexual harassment case, in which an employee accused then chief executive Mark McInnes of making unwelcome sexual advances and comments. “There was a sexual connotation to those interactions,” she says.

The key point is whether a romantic interaction is intimidating, she says. Romantic interaction between employees is fine – to a point – but it cannot be intimidating.

If the exchange between the two employees was completely consensual, there would be no problem, Drew says, and the appropriateness of any comment made in public would be defined by the company’s own workplace policies.

But while romantic interaction – such as giving a box of chocolates – is not necessarily intimidating, it may not necessarily be consensual. If this behaviour is repeated, as Laura Fernee claims it was, this becomes a problem.

Drew says business owners need to take these sorts of claims seriously.

“I would treat any complaint as a potential workplace harassment case,” she says. “If you find out about one, you need to investigate it.”

“If it doesn’t meet the tests of workplace harassment, the outcome is that obviously no one will be disciplined. But there are lots of other things you can do to make sure staff are aware of each other’s sensitivities.”

The bottom line, Drew says, is that businesses need to draft policies regarding sexual harassment before any sort of case can appear. For that matter, they should also draft policies regarding acceptable romantic expression in the workplace.

“No matter how big or small the business, there needs to be some type of policy. This is a known workplace risk and needs to be dealt with.”

“It can be a short policy, but every employer needs to have one of some kind.”

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