Legal obligation on employers to prevent sexual harassment

EHRC sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace has become ‘normalised’ due to corrosive working cultures, says the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The commission has launched a new report, which makes a series of recommendations aimed at better protecting people in the workplace. These place the onus on employers to prevent and resolve sexual harassment and the EHRC is calling for the government to place a legal obligation on employers to do this.

For example, it is calling for the government introduce legislation preventing employers from using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to protect their reputation. Instead, the EHRC says NDAs should only be used at a victim’s request. The recommendations also include calling for the time limit to bring a claim of sexual harassment to tribunal to be extended.

Research

The EHRC says its research into sexual harassment, which included hearing from over 1,000 individuals, threw up up some truly shocking results. For example, the researchers heard from a woman who said when she was 17 years old, she had to lock herself into a toilet because of rape jokes turning to threats. The report includes her quote: “My boss told me that’s just how men talk and to go home.” Researchers also heard from another woman who had experienced sexual harassment who said: “I lost my job, my reputation and my health.”

The EHRC says there is a lack of consistent, effective action being taken by employers, and people’s careers and mental and physical health have been damaged as a result.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says: “We need urgent action to turn the tables in British workplaces; shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it. That’s what our recommendations set out to do.”

Recommendations

The recommendations include calling for the time limit to bring a claim of sexual harassment to tribunal to be extended to six months, reflecting the time taken by many individuals to raise complaints.

In developing the recommendations, the Commission asked members of the public to share their experiences of workplace sexual harassment and wrote to leading employers, including the Chairs of the FTSE 100 and magic circle law firms, reminding them of their legal responsibility for the safety and dignity of their employees and asking for evidence of their policy and practice.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, says: “It’s time for employers to demonstrate proactively how they will protect their staff and prevent sexual harassment. The first step is to give women the confidence to come forward and then genuinely listen to them when they do, instead of preventing them speaking out or hoping money will make the problem go away. It won’t.’

The report ‘Turning Tables: ending sexual harassment at work’, includes recommendations such as asking:

The UK Government to…

implement a new positive legal duty on employers to take effective steps to prevent harassment or victimisation in the workplace; the duty will be enforceable by the Commission

produce a statutory code of practice that sets out the steps employers need to take to comply with this duty, with a possible 25% uplift in compensation when an employer breaches the code

strengthen protection for those harassed by customers and clients

collect data from individuals across England, Scotland and Wales every three years to determine the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment and produce an action plan to address the problems revealed

ACAS to…

develop targeted sexual harassment training for managers, staff and workplace sexual harassment ‘champions’

Employers to…

be transparent and publish their separate sexual harassment policy and steps being taken to implement and evaluate it in an easily accessible part of their external website so their current and potential employees are clear about how this important issue is being addressed.

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