The Womens and Equalities Committee (a committee appointed by the House of Commons) launched an inquiry in February 2018 to investigate sexual harassment in the workplace and last month released their findings in a report ‘Sexual harassment in the workplace’ which it hopes the Government will put at the top of their agenda. The committees report highlights that employers and regulators should be more closely involved and give the same level of attention to sexual harassment as they give to issues such as data protection and money laundering. The report calls on employers to raise awareness of the issue, improve enforcement and reporting processes, clean up their use of non-disclosure agreements and obtain data that reveals the extent and nature of sexual harassment.
In October 2017, sexual harassment cases appeared in the media from celebrities and high-profile people, which triggered a large movement of women coming forward about being victims of sexual harassment. Accusations were made at Westminster. The #MeToo movement put sexual harassment in the media spotlight and highlighted just how common and widespread the issue is. This campaign led to employers rapidly reacting to sexual harassment cases. The Committee’s report reminds employers and the Government that they still need to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace with urgency, even when sexual harassment isn’t in the public eye.
The Reports Recommendations
- A compulsory duty for employers to protect employees from sexual harassment, enforced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and financial penalties.
- Employers should have a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment that states what steps need to be taken to prevent harassment in the workplace.
- Public sector employers should carry out immediate risk assessments for sexual harassment to prevent potential risks. They should define how cases will be dealt with and provide guidance on fines.
- Protect staff from third party harassment and extend protection to employees who are interns and volunteers.
- Extend the time limit to six months for employees to submit a claim, with the clock stopped whilst the employee is going through a grievance process.
- Tribunals to award punitive damages and employers to pay employees’ costs if they lost a sexual harassment case.
- Regulators can take more responsibility by stating the actions that will be taken to deal with sexual harassment and what actions will be imposed
- More ethical use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which are better handled and well regulated.
- NDAs should be in plain English, so employees fully understand their meaning and the action that could be taken if they are found to commit an offence.
- Employees to be able to obtain information about the responsible and legal use of confidentiality clauses.
- Lawyers to face sanctions for sexual harassment or if they use NDAs to silence victims.
- Employers to be held accountable for using confidentiality clauses in an illegal way.
- Whistleblowers who report a case should be dealt with confidentially.
So, what now?
“There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action,” said Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke and chair of the women and equalities committee. There’s recently been strict requirements for you to be GDPR compliant, the same level of attention should be given to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Employees that fall victims of sexual harassment often feel burdened as it is up to them to speak up and raise a grievance. A positive approach should be taken to prevent sexual harassment, including following the steps stated in your statutory code of practice.
Prevention is better than cure, so employees should be encouraged to respect other colleagues at all levels. Managers should be asked to set an example and take responsibility for setting the boundaries as to what is unacceptable and acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
Internal procedures should be reviewed as a precautionary measure, as the Government could release new legislation in the near future. Although sexual harassment may not be an easy issue to measure, it may be a good idea to looking at capturing data such as the number of sexual harassment claims and the extent of harassment in your workplace. NDA’s should not be used as a quick solution to settle claims, as in the future using NDA’s to prevent people from coming forward could become an offence.
The number of tribunal claims remains low, which reflects the barriers that employees face. A report from the BBC stated that 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced incidents in the workplace. Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said: “Everyone has the right to a safe working environment and no one should have to go to work afraid of how they might be treated by a manager, a customer or a colleague.”
The Equality Act 2010 already prohibits sexual harassment. However, it is not just up to employers to carry out changes, it is also up to the Government and regulators to take stringent action and help eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace.