Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace
The Women and Equalities Committee, a Parliamentary select committee, has published its report on sexual harassment in the workplace. The report focuses on changing the culture and attitude towards sexual harassment. The outcome would increase employer’s regulatory duties. The report also focuses on allowing victims to more easily raise their concerns and to put an end to the unwanted conduct.
The recommendations are:
- To make it mandatory for employers to protect their staff from sexual harassment in the workplace. This would be enforceable by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and punishable by fines.
- Extend the time limit for bringing a claim to the employment tribunal from three months to six. Also proposed that proceedings are put on hold during internal grievance procedures.
- Limit employers’ ability to use confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements, or ‘non-disclosure agreements’, to government approved standard clauses.
- Reintroduce third party harassment. This will mean employers will be liable if they have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent others harassing their staff.
- Enable tribunals to award punitive damages in sexual harassment cases. Meaning employers will usually have to pay employee’s legal costs if they are unsuccessful in a sexual harassment claim brought against them.
- To extend sexual harassment protection for interns and volunteers.
- A duty for public sector employers to conduct risk assessments for sexual harassment, and take steps to reduce any risks.
- Lawyers who propose the use of a non-approved confidentiality clause will be committing a professional disciplinary offence. In some circumstances this would be a criminal offence for both the employer and lawyer.
If these recommendations are put in place, this would mean that sexual harassment will be subject to the same level of regulation as other areas like GDPR and money laundering.
What constitutes harassment?
BBC statistics show that 40% of women have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. This is inconsistent with the Committee’s report, where the number of employment tribunal claims for sexual harassment is low. However, the publication of this report, along with the increasing awareness towards sexual harassment, suggests that more victims may feel able to bring an employment tribunal claim going forward.
Employers have a moral and legal responsibility to take action to ensure that sexual harassment is properly addressed in their workplaces. Preventative action includes providing staff with training on harassment and discrimination. This will educate staff on what actually constitutes harassment as there are grey areas. Some people may be surprised to hear that workplace conduct such as an employee ‘playing cupid’ between staff, despite a benign motive, amounts to sexual harassment. A person who is not the target of an offensive comment or action can also bring up a sexual harassment claim. Having strong policies in place is a must to tackle issues before and as they arise.
Jelf’s employment law team offer assistance on how to prevent and manage sexual harassment and discrimination matters in the workplace.