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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

View profile for James Champness
The Women and Equalities Commission (a cross-party parliamentary committee chaired by Maria Miller MP) has published its report on sexual harassment in the workplace, and has proposed a number of recommendations.  After a consultation process which took into consideration 75 written submissions from individuals and groups, the WEC has called upon the Government to:
a) Put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, by
  • introducing a new duty on employers to prevent harassment (supported by a statutory code of practice outlining the steps they can take to comply with this duty); and
  • ensuring that interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections and remedies as their workplace colleagues, including employees and workers.

b) Require regulators (such as the Health & Safety Executive or the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to take a more active role, starting by

  • setting out the actions they will take to help tackle this problem, including the enforcement action they will take; and
  • making it clear to those they regulate that sexual harassment is a breach of professional standards and a reportable offence with sanctions.
c) Make enforcement processes work better for employees by
  • setting out what employers should do to tackle sexual harassment; and
  • reducing barriers to taking forward tribunal cases, including by extending the time limit for submitting a claim from three to six months, introducing punitive damages for employers and reducing cost risks for employees, so that employers would have to pay legal costs if the employee wins a claim for sexual harassment.
d) Regulate the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), including by
  • requiring the use of standard, plain English confidentiality clauses, which set out the meaning, limit and effect of the clause, and making it an offence to misuse such clauses; and
  • extending whistleblowing protections so that disclosures to the police and regulators such as the EHRC are protected.
e) Collect robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.
The Minister for Women, Victoria Atkins MP, welcomed the report and recognised the need for better data on sexual harassment, particularly from employers:
“The Government recognises the need for more data on this; I am very conscious that by the time it has reached a tribunal it is too late, because by then behaviour has happened that has placed the victim of that behaviour in a very difficult, often distressing situation. I think we should be asking questions about this of business alongside all the questions we already ask business, most recently with gender pay gap reporting. We should be asking businesses what they are doing and what they feel their response is to sexual harassment.”
As always, the challenge for the Government will be finding legislative time and energy to put these recommendations into practice.  However, employers should be aware of the possible regulatory changes which might arise as a result of this report.