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EHRC's Business Plan: focus on tackling sexual harassment in the workplace

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has recently published its Business Plan for the upcoming year, with key emphasis placed on:

  • the promotion of apprenticeships to improve access to work for disabled people, people with mental health conditions and ethnic minority groups;
  • supporting the development of flexible working policies and practices, with a particular focus on working parents and people with mental health conditions;
  • informing employers about how to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, including those with mental health conditions;
  • implementing last year’s strategy to reduce gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps, including ensuring compliance with the new gender pay gap regulations, by promoting good practice and using enforcement powers to address non-compliance; and
  • pressing for stronger protection from sexual harassment (see below).

Within both its Business Plan and its latest report, Turning the tables: Ending sexual harassment at work, the EHRC has declared its ongoing commitment to address sexual harassment within the workplace.  Calling for the Government to take action, the EHRC’s report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • the imposition of a mandatory duty for employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, by both employees and third parties, such as customers and suppliers.  The breach of such a duty would constitute an unlawful act under the Equality Act 2006;  
  • similar to the ACAS code, the introduction of a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment and harassment at work, specifying the steps that employers should take both to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.  With this in force, tribunals would have the power to uplift the compensation awarded in harassment claims by up to 25% for breach of the code; 
  • banning improper non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses so as to prevent employees from discussing harassment, and requesting that the Government introduce laws which make such clauses automatically void and unenforceable; and
  • extending the limitation period for bringing a sexual harassment claim to 6 months from the latest of (i) the act; (ii) the last in a series of acts; or (iii) exhaustion of any internal complaints procedure.  The report also recommends that for those claims brought out of time, the burden of proof should be shifted to the respondent to establish why time should not be extended, once the claimant establishes the reason for the delay.

Although these are currently recommendations only, given the increased spotlight being thrown on these issues, employers should take action now to prevent and address harassment within the workplace, by ensuring that they have an anti-harassment policy in place and that their staff receive proper training on both the prevention and management of harassment claims.  It also goes without saying, if the limitation period for harassment claims is extended, as proposed, employers can expect to see a rise in the number of claims brought in the employment tribunal.

We are already seeing an increase in the number of clients seeking advice on such issues, and if you would like further advice on how best to protect your business and your staff, then please do get in touch with a member of the team.