News that US firm Shearman & Sterling sacked a London associate after he allegedly sexually harassed a vacation student in a West End strip club spurred a heated debate among readers of TheLawyer.com.
Some commentators lauded the vacation student for following her complaint through while others felt she must have been exceptionally na? in her actions. For some readers Shearman’s reaction was entirely proportionate while others felt that sacking the associate in question had been an exceptionally harsh punishment for something that goes on in the City all the time.
From the opinions it is clear that the boundaries between drunken behaviour and sexual harassment remain unclear.
The fact that employment law and employer’s liability have changed rapidly in recent years adds to the confusion. This has been highlighted in the Shearman case. While the vacation student and the associate went to the strip club alone, the student felt the firm should bear some responsibility for his behaviour because the evening began with firm-organised drinks that were attended by at least one partner.
A City employment partner says: “It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between a work event and a social event, but from an employment law perspective the scope of an employer’s responsibility is potentially very wide, so that in my view it was entirely appropriate for follow up action from the partnership.”
Shearman has apologised to the student after conducting an internal investigation, which resulted in the sacking of the associate, but the firm denies liability for the alleged harassment.
In a letter to the vacation student dated 1 August, the firm wrote: “Although we accept that the conduct displayed by the associate in taking you to The Windmill Club was deeply inappropriate, it was not a Shearman & Sterling organised event and we therefore accept no liability for what may have occurred.”