Roger Pearson looks at the implications for employers of the £200,000 sexual harassment payout to firefighter Tania Clapton

The true cost of sexual harassment has been brought home to employers by a recent award to a woman fire fighter who won a record £200,000 pay-out for the treatment she endured at the hands of male colleagues on the Hereford and Worcester brigade.

The final out-of-court settlement for 31-year-old Tania Clayton came at the doors of an industrial tribunal after a protracted and fiercely fought legal battle which began four years ago. But the fact that the matter ended in an out-of-court settlement does nothing to detract from the message the case holds for employers.

Solicitor Janet Smith, of top employment law specialists Thompsons of Birmingham, who acted for Tania Clayton, says: "This case is one that employers need to take note of. They must ensure that sexual harassment is not occurring in their particular workplace.

"What is shown here is that activities of that nature among the work force can prove extremely expensive for the employers concerned.

"This case serves as a strong economic argument for employers to be alert to what is going on and to stamp it out at once if they become aware of harassment."

On the other side of the Atlantic, sexual harassment has led to awards of lottery-winning proportions. Here too, pay-outs have been creeping up steadily. A woman banker who was asked to leave after rejecting advances by her boss won £81,000, a woman sacked by the Army after she became pregnant received £60,000, a Wren was awarded £65,000 following repeated harassment, and two policewomen received over £110,000 after complaining they were told to wear short skirts, stockings and suspenders on duty.

The pay-out in the case of Tania Clayton, however, catapults harassment into a new financial league in the UK, though it is fair to say that it would be hard to envisage a much worse case of harassment than the one she had to endure.

Clayton, a former soldier who had served in Ulster, claimed she was subjected to verbal abuse by members and officers of the Hereford and Worcester brigade. She also complained that she was made to carry out needless but dangerous drills because she was a woman, and told that it was her job to serve tea to firemen in bed because she was a woman.

She blamed the break-up of her marriage on the strain of the legal action and she ultimately had to receive psychiatric treatment as a result of what happened to her.

Looking at the case, which she considers was unnecessarily protracted because of the stance taken by the fire brig- ade, Smith says that it has an important message for previously male-dominated areas of employment, such as the fire service.

"Women are very much in a minority in the fire brigade and this case, as well as high-lighting an appalling situation, indicates that changes are needed. It brings home the fact that employers must be aware, whatever field they are in, that we are no longer in a male-dominated workforce culture.

"I think the message this case spells out is that there are very strong economic arguments for employers to manage their workforces properly.

"Management failings were a very major issue in this case. The management had done nothing to deal with the situation that had arisen. Management must educate the work force in respect of harassment, and if necessary it must take disciplinary measures to ensure that the members of the workforce behave properly and decently towards each other."