The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland helps settle sexual orientation discrimination case

A sexual orientation discrimination case has been settled, with no admission of liability, for £2,000 with the help of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Back in July 2019, an employee, Rory Harbinson, volunteered to print out posters for the upcoming Belfast Pride event after seeing an invite seeking volunteers to do exactly that on the staff intranet. He put the posters on public display in his place of work, the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.

The following morning, the posters were taken down by his manager and a heated exchange ensued between the two. Mr. Harbinson returned to his office and his manager followed 10 minutes later holding the posters in her hand and another heated exchange ensued. He tried to explain to his manager that the Trust was promoting Belfast Pride and had invited staff to promote it and he volunteered. When he said that she could be perceived as homophobic, she said: “Oh here we go”.

Mr. Harbinson, who is gay, raised a complaint about the matter saying that it was harassment on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

In a statement, Mr. Harbinson said:

“I was glad to settle this case, it was a very unpleasant experience and I felt shocked and humiliated by the whole episode.

It seemed that putting the Trust posters up brought all this anger and hostility down on my head. It was not just taking down the posters, but the way I was treated after this incident that I found so hard to accept.

I felt that my being gay made the posters somehow more offensive to my manager. And I’m very grateful for the support of the Equality Commission throughout.”

Anne McKernan, director of legal services at the Equality Commission, said:

“There has been massive progress towards equality for gay people in Northern Ireland but, in terms of attitudes, we know we still have some way to go.

“What should employers do? This was an incident that escalated and ended up in a discrimination case. There were two main issues involved here. The first is to do with the removal of the posters. Our view is it is legitimate for an organisation at the corporate level to endorse the principles of equality and diversity and to promote those goals. So when an employer commits to supporting and promoting an initiative like Belfast Pride, it should ensure that there is clarity around the promotion of its material within the workplace and that all employees are clear on this.

“The second is that promoting dignity and respect for and amongst employees is a critical part of developing a good and harmonious workplace. The law is there to protect people from discrimination and harassment as well as any other less favourable treatment because of their sexual orientation. Where a policy is in place, as it is in the Trust, employers need to make sure that all staff know what behaviour is acceptable in the workplace in dealing with their colleagues. It’s a good thing to have a Dignity at Work policy to set this down formally.”

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