Sexual harassment in the workplace

The Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) has recently published a report to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, since it has become a more prominent issue with an unclear protocol in a majority of workplaces. This report establishes a five point plan.

  • The requirement for employers to put sexual harassment at the top of their agenda

The WEC supports a recommendation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that employers have a mandatory statutory duty to protect their workers from harassment and victimisation.  This would create a new statutory duty, accompanied by a statutory code of practice which would require employers to take reasonable steps to protect employees. If employers breach their duty, sanctions will be handed out such as expensive financial penalties.

  • Calls for regulators to take a more active role

In the report the WEC have called for regulators to take further steps to ensure their members are tackling sexual harassment and protecting their staff adequately. Regulators have a duty to hold employers accountable for failure to enforce procedures. Therefore, like with employers, if they fail to do this they too would be in breach not only in regard to protecting from sexual harassment but also of their public sector equality duty and would suffer sanctions too.

  • Improvement of enforcement processes

Another major suggestion is for the enforcement process to be improved to make it easier for individuals to raise concerns and bring a claim to the Employment Tribunal. The main suggestion is the extension of the time limit to bring a claim to six months which is double the current three months. Also, punitive damages should be available and a discretionary 25% increase if there is a breach of statutory code. As well as this, there would be a presumption that the employer covers the claimant’s legal costs if the employer loses the claim.

  • Clean up use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)

In the report the WEC condemns the use of such agreements in sexual harassment claims where the effect is to prevent the victim speaking out. To do this they want NDAs to be better controlled and regulated. Their suggestion is to use simple English and explanations in legislation, to make it easier for everyone to understand. They have also proposed so called “protected disclosures” to include the disclosure of sexual harassment incidents to police, regulators, courts and tribunals.

  • Robust data

Finally, the report calls for the collection of robust data to be improved. They suggest the government collect data from employment tribunal claims and carry out surveys every three or so years to ensure employers are following practices and to see if there is any improvement regarding the number of sexual harassment claims and how such claims are treated.
There has been no government response to the report yet. However, what this suggests is that employers should ensure they articulate what constitutes sexual harassment in their workplace and have a clear code of practice which employees can follow if they fall victim.