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Kate Palmer

Peninsula

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

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The Worker Protection Bill – what is it and how will it affect employers?

Kate Palmer explores the legal implications of the new Worker Protection Bill and how it will affect employers.
Woman standing along on a hill looking down a road

Almost all women (97%) aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, according to a report by UN Women UK. It makes for sobering reading, particularly as 96% of those women did not report the incident as they believed it ‘wouldn’t change anything.’

More than 7 in 10 UK women have faced sexual harassment in public and almost half (45%) have been sexually harassed at work. That jumps to three-quarters of women who have either encountered or witnessed inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues at work, according to Ranstad’s 2022 Gender Equality in the Workplace report.

Several tech CEOs have also come under fire for allegedly abusing female colleagues, most notably at video game company Activision Blizzard

There’s no place for any form of harassment – sexual or otherwise. And the fact that so many incidents are still occurring within the workplace should ring alarm bells for employers.

The numbers are worrying

There have been too many high-profile scandals to count in recent years; Harvey Weinstein – the disgraced Hollywood producer who used his position of influence to sexually assault several actresses – is just one example. His behaviour instigated the #MeToo movement. 

Several tech CEOs have also come under fire for allegedly abusing female colleagues, most notably at video game company Activision Blizzard. With more than half of all women in tech reporting gender inequality, discrimination, or sexual harassment, it seems there is much work still to be done in this sector. 

In 2021, the nation was shocked and appalled when it came to light that Wayne Couzens abused his position as a police officer to kidnap, rape, and murder Sarah Everard.

Most recently, it was revealed that over 1,000 cases of sexual harassment were reported in McDonalds restaurants in the UK as of 2019. On the back of this, the company signed a legally binding pledge with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) underpinning a commitment to several new measures to better protect workers.

Will the new legistation really help?

Harassment is not an irregular incident. It’s rife in all areas, and the workplace is no exception…

That’s why new legislation is due to come into force which will place greater responsibility on organisations to protect their employees against all types of harassment, including sexual harassment. 

The Worker Protection Bill is currently working its way through Parliament, and we could see it being introduced later this year.

Under the Bill, employers would have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees in the course of their employment. The intention is to shift the focus to prevention rather than redress.

Frequent interactions with the public and consumption of alcohol certainly play a part in the disproportionate number of complaints of harassment in the hospitality sector

The Bill would also bring back employers’ liability for third-party harassment. This was introduced as part of the Equality Act in 2010 but repealed in 2013, despite opposition from 71% of consultation responses. 

However, the new legislation goes further. Previously, employers were only liable if there had been two or more instances of third-party harassment of which they were aware. Under the new laws, employers would be liable for any acts of third-party harassment – whether that might be perpetrated by customers, clients, members of the public, etc. – if they failed to take steps to prevent harassment, even if it was the first instance.

It seems the Government is very aware of the need to clamp down on harassment in the workplace. 

What is the current state of play?

Earlier this year, in a positive step forward for the industry, the Equality and Human Rights Commission teamed up with UK Hospitality to publish a new action plan and checklist for emplyers to help them stop sexual harassment in the workplace. 

This was created following research which found that most hospitality workers had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, and most found it to be a “normal” part of the job in settings where alcohol is consumed. 

Frequent interactions with the public and consumption of alcohol certainly play a part in the disproportionate number of complaints of harassment in the hospitality sector. However, with this new checklist in place, and the promise of new legislation on the horizon, a framework now exists to help employers stamp this out.

Under the Equality Act 2010 employers can be held legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed at work by a colleague if it is found they didn’t take all reasonable steps to prevent it. Currently, this doesn’t extend to third parties. We wait with bated breath to see what outcome the Worker’s Protection Bill will have…

Given that employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of their employees, it’s recommended that they proactively put in place measures now to prevent such behaviour from occurring in the first place, no matter who the perpetrator may be. 

Failure to adequately address inappropriate behaviours or creating a culture which does not facilitate diversity and inclusion can prove detrimental for organisations and put them at risk of tribunal claims, high turnover, and reduced productivity.

A robust policy is the first step in preventing misconduct

What’s the next step for organisations?

All businesses should review their policies on sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace and assess how aware employees are of such policies. 

A robust policy is the first step in preventing misconduct, however, organisations should also ensure there is a clear, zero-tolerance attitude towards these behaviours. 

Similarly, workplace training for managers and workers on how to manage, avoid and report inappropriate actions can go a long way in discouraging all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, as can providing effective support to affected employees, to raise any concerns. 

Interested in this topic? Read Macdonalds’ pledge to tackle sexual harassment is a good start but it could go further.

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Kate Palmer

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

Read more from Kate Palmer
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