Tribunal was right in sex-related harassment case

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    Tribunal was right in sex-related harassment case

    After a tribunal judged that calling someone ‘bald’ amounted to harassment related to sex, Shakil Butt describes his own experience of hair loss, explaining why the panel was right to find in the bald man’s favour.

    Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L Jackson, Sir Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong, Stanley Tucci, Billy Zane, Jeff Bezos and Prince William. It reads like a list of the rich and famous but they all have one more thing in common. Following this month’s employment tribunal ruling I’m hesitant to mention what exactly that is, but am sure it will not have escaped your notice.

    Male pattern baldness, also called androgenic alopecia due to being related to the male sex hormones called androgens, is the most common type of hair loss in men. It starts as a receding hairline or bald spot on the top of your head and results in thinning of the hair and hair loss for a number of years.

    Each hair on your head has a growth cycle which weakens and the hair follicle shrinks, producing shorter and finer strands of hair until finally the growth cycle for each hair ends and no new hair grows.

    Hair loss can be related to a person’s genetics if there is a family history of baldness but can also be a result of health conditions such as certain cancers and thyroid conditions, as well as taking medications and anabolic steroids.

    Male pattern baldness usually occurs later in life and is a regarded as a natural part of the ageing process for millions of men. Some men embrace their new look, taking the attitude ’hair today, gone tomorrow’, but for others hair loss can be psychologically distressing.

    Harassment related to sex

    This may explain why an electrician, Tony Finn, took his employer the British Bung Company to an employment tribunal after his supervisor, Jamie King, made explicit comments about his baldness. The employment tribunal ruled he was a victim of harassment related to sex because King had used a phrase which was “unwanted” and “related to the claimant’s sex”.

    Finn was called bald, followed by an expletive, during an argument with King. The employment judge found King crossed the line by making remarks about the claimant’s appearance, noting a connection between the word ‘bald’ and the protected characteristic of sex.

    It was accepted that women as well as men may be bald, but baldness was “much more” prevalent in men and “inherently related to sex”.

    The judgment, made by an all-male tribunal panel, referred to a 1995 case which found a woman had been discriminated against when a manager commented on the size of her breasts.

    The tribunal drew parallels between the two cases, stating that it was likely that such comments are linked to a specific sex. The finding of harassment related to sex was part of a longer judgment which also found Finn was unfairly and wrongly dismissed in 2021.

    Baldness impact on wellbeing

    I do agree calling someone bald can be very insulting if used in this context to demean and belittle a person. Baldness is seen as a sign of ageing so when a person starts to lose their hair – especially if it happens early – it can affect a person’s view of themselves, negatively impacting their mental health and wellbeing.

    There is a whole industry that has grown in response to baldness, from very sophisticated hair pieces, medication and transplants, and it is worth billions. This is indicative of how much hair loss can impact a person’s self-worth and their pursuit of eternal youth.

    It is precisely because baldness is seen as older person’s issue and is visible that it can be so sensitive. My hair started thinning in my late twenties and may have been linked to a course of medication that I was on at the time. As someone who was very vain, styling my hair daily, rocking a quiff, checking myself out in every car window reflection, losing my hair was devastating.

    I tried expensive lotions but to no avail . Finally, aged 30, I decided against a comb over and shaved my hair off completely. My children have never seen me with hair except in old photos and, other than a handful of family and friends, no-one will remember the time I had hair.

    I am usually the first to make light of not having hair. On my online training sessions I usually joke that I am the only one with a legitimate excuse to have my camera off because everyday is a bad hair day, or I have joked that I have spent ages getting my hair done – these eyebrows don’t just happen by themselves.

    Outside of our control

    I also refer to my lack of hair as ‘divine’ hair styling, because it is something outside my control, so I can be more accepting of it. What I do have is a say in, is how I react to being bald. I came to terms with it a long time ago and decided it does not define me. The people in my life who really matter are not in my life because I do not have hair, but because of who I am as a person.

    That said, I have not totally ruled out a hair transplant – especially after knowing some family members and friends have done so – but I know that this will not turn back the clock or mean I become somebody else.

    I do think it is easier now to be bald than it was in the past, with such a list of follicly-challenged celebrities who have embraced their lack of hair, but no-one should have to accept being insulted and made to feel less than for any reason in the workplace.

    Everyone should be afforded dignity and respect, so the focus can be on the work itself. In this sense I welcome the tribunal’s judgment. Employers take note: we need you to be bolder in preventing emotionally-damaging and draining negative behaviour, including bullying or harassment, and create positive cultures where everyone irrespective of hair length can thrive.

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