Sexual harassment: NIC awards N40m against employer

Many employees in Nigeria have to contend with sexual harassment on a daily basis but few have the courage to take a stance against same. Thus, the case of Mrs. Ejieke Maduka, a former Enterprise marketing Manager of Microsoft Nigeria, is indeed, a landmark case.

Following complaints of sexual harassment and her eventual sack by Microsoft Nigeria Limited, Mrs. Maduka, who was also the Diversity Champion for Women Rights in West, East and Central Africa, WECA, for Microsoft Worldwide, took her case to the National Industrial Court. The Court awarded N39.6 million ($248,000) in damages for the termination of her employment for refusing the sexual advances of former Country Manager, Emmanuel Onyeje, who took over the reins at Zinox Technologies as Chief Operating Officer, in July last year.

The first respondent, Microsoft Nigeria Limited, told the court it retained the right to hire and fire the applicant and prayed for the dismissal of the suit adding that Mrs Maduka’s termination was part of a “restructuring and downsizing” plan, as she was not the only employee laid off, and it had nothing to do with her alleged refusal to succumb to the sexual advances of Onyeje. It also denied that Onyeje sexually harassed the applicant.

The second respondent, Microsoft Corporation, on its part, prayed the court to strike its name out from the suit, as it neither employed nor sacked the applicant, adding that it owed her no duty of care.

The third respondent, Onyeje on his part, denied ever sexually harassing the applicant.  During trial, Onyeje’s only witness, Awawu Olumide Sojinrin, a Microsoft employee, testified that she never saw him sexually harass any female staff. However, on cross-examination, she admitted that while on an official trip to Atlanta, USA, Onyeje did not tickle her, but “touched” and “poked” her. She also admitted that she saw him touch and poke some of her colleagues.

The fourth respondent, Majekodunmi asked the court to strike out his name from the suit, as he merely carried out a lawful order of his employer, by issuing the termination letter on the applicant. The court struck off his name from the suit, holding that he is not a proper party in the suit.

The trial judge, Justice O. Obaseki-Osaghae, in her judgment, found that

  • The first respondent had not implemented its sexual harassment policy;
  • By their inaction and silence, the first and second respondent both tolerated and ratified the third respondent’s conduct contrary to their policy of prohibition and non-tolerance of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliatory action. Thus, they are both in breach of their duty of care and protection to the applicant and are vicariously liable for the acts of sexual harassment carried out by the third respondent within the apparent scope of authority they entrusted to him.
  • On the sack of the applicant, the court noted that neither the evidence of the downsizing or restructuring nor the names of the other employees affected by the exercise were placed before the court. The court further stated that the sudden replacement of the applicant with Peter Evbota is evidence of gender discrimination.

“The applicant has given evidence that she notified the Human Resources Manager and her immediate boss Mr Majekodunnmi of sexual harassment by the third respondent, but they did nothing about it”.

Mrs. Ejieke asked the court for an award of general damages and exemplary and aggravated damages. The court in awarding general damages stated;

“The applicant’s fundamental rights have been violated. Her pride, dignity and sense or self-worth have (sic) been injured by the actions of the respondents. I think an award of general damages which she is entitled to will meet the justice of this case. She has deposed to the fact that her annual base pay is NI3. 225million.This has not been denied by the respondents. Consequently, and on the authority of section 19 (d) of the National Industrial Court act, 2006, I make an award of general damages in favour of the applicant”

The court made the following orders;

  • That  the termination of the applicant’s employment by the first  and second respondents through their agent, the third respondent, simply because she refused to succumb to the sexual harassment from the third  respondent, the ratification of same by  first, second, third respondents and the subsequent conduct of the respondents constitute a violation of the applicant’s fundamental right to human dignity and freedom from discrimination as guaranteed by Section 34 and 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Articles 2, 5, 14, I5 and 19 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, CAPA9, Laws of the Federation, 2004.
  • The acts of the third respondent, an agent of the first and second respondents, in incessantly handling the applicant’s waist against her will and without her consent, constitutes assault and trespass on the person of the applicant.
  • Each of the respondents (Ist, 2nd and 3rd) are to pay to the applicant the sum of N13, 225million as general damages for the violation of the applicant’s rights as guaranteed under Sections 34 and 42 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and Articles 2, 5, 14, 15 and 19 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap A9, Laws of the Federation, 2004.
  • The first and second respondents are to immediately implement the sexual harassment policy to prevent a recurrence of a hostile working environment, sexual harassment in the first respondent. The sums are to be paid within 30 days.

Obviously, the respondents have the right to appeal and the Appeal courts may question the quantum of damage awarded. However, the case, to my mind, is a clarion call for employees and the courts to stamp out the cankerworm that is sexual harassment in Nigeria. A former employee of Cormart Nigeria Limited, Peace Gabriel, seems to have taken the bull by the horn by raising an alarm over an alleged attempt by her former supervisor, Mr. Patrick Ovie, to frame her for fraud. Gabriel added that the development arose because she rejected Ovie’s alleged sexual advances. see  Former employee of Cormart alleges sexual harassment