Sexual harassment has been high on the agenda for many employers recently with the headlines full of both MPs and high-profile celebrities accused of acting in a sexually untoward manner.
With the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill now approved by Parliament, employers have greater responsibilities relating to sexual harassment in the workplace.
While the introduction of this new law is part of the post-Brexit review of UK laws, rather than directly related to these cases, it has clearly come at an appropriate time to strengthen protections for employees.
The approved Worker Protection Bill has been somewhat diluted
The initial draft of the bill proposed liability on employers for harassment of their employees by third parties and a proactive duty on employers to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment in the workplace.
When it was considered by the House of Lords, however, the proposed third-party liability was removed from the bill and the language around employers’ duty was diluted. The Lords took out the word ‘all’, which now means that employers will only be required to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment.
What does sexual harassment encompass?
Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment.
With gender and sexual orientation both protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, it is surprising that parliament made this amendment to the bill as this diminishes the responsibility of the employer significantly in comparison to what was originally put forward.
With the public spotlight continuing to shine on sexual harassment in the workplace, employers need to ensure that they take a zero-tolerance approach.
What about third-party harassment?
As well as decreasing the responsibility of the employer the original bill proposed that employers should be also responsible for third-party harassment.
However, this was completely removed from the bill on the grounds that it would be too burdensome for the employer and could jeopardise free speech.
Despite this being removed from the bill this does not mean that employees would not be able to claim if they have been sexually harassed by a third party at work, as they would be able to claim via a constructive dismissal claim.
The bill is now in the final stages of approval awaiting royal assent. Once it has received that then it will become law. We expect it to come into force in 2024.
But employers should not wait for this to happen. In anticipation of the new bill being introduced, they should start preparing now, ensuring that the necessary provisions are in place to prevent employees from being subject to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Every employee has the right to feel safe and protected in their place of work, and it is down to the employer to ensure that they take the necessary steps to make all employees feel this way.
48% of people surveyed did not report incidents of sexually inappropriate behaviour to their employer.
A (small) step in the right direction
Although the legislation has been watered down slightly it’s important to note that it does still increase the responsibility on employers. So, it is another step in the right direction, although not as significant a change as many had expected.
With the public spotlight continuing to shine on sexual harassment in the workplace, employers need to ensure that they take a zero-tolerance approach towards any form of harassment in the workplace.
It’s clear that sexual harassment remains prevalent, and employers should note that claims by employees who have been harassed by third parties could still be made indirectly through constructive dismissal claims.
A third of workers have experienced sexual harassment
A study conducted by The Barrister Group has found that a third of UK workers have been subject to a form of sexually inappropriate behaviour from a colleague whether this be sexual comments, groping, or receiving inappropriate messages to name a few.
Despite these startling statistics, 48% of people surveyed did not report incidents of sexually inappropriate behaviour to their employer as they feared that they would not be believed or would be put at a detriment if they came forward and complained.
This highlights the need for radical change. Employers should already have measures in place within their workplace making it clear that any allegations of harassment – sexual or otherwise – will be taken seriously, to encourage victims to come forward.
Mental Health First Aiders should be visible on each floor and known to every member of staff.
How can employers better protect workers from sexual harassment?
Reasonable measures such as EAPs, reporting boards, and training should be on offer for all employees so anyone who has been a victim of harassment has visible support available to them.
Additionally, employers should have a policy that solely deals with sexual harassment in the workplace. This should include the steps an employee should take to make a formal complaint, details on the procedure and how it is managed, as well as signposting employees to support, such as counselling services or an EAP.
Mental Health First Aiders should be visible on each floor and known to every member of staff. They help serve as a sounding board to deal with any initial claims and then raise them to the appropriate people within the business, who can then deal with the claims in line with company procedure.
When staff feel as though they are listened to and any concerns/complaints are dealt with correctly and sensitively, this makes them feel supported. In turn, this helps boost overall morale within the business.
Making sure the correct policies and procedures are in place to protect the workforce creates a positive brand image which will then aid recruitment as well as retention.