The Women and Equalities parliamentary committee have made a number of proposals to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace after claiming previous efforts had failed to tackle unlawful behaviour. These suggestions have been included as part of the committee’s report, following a six-month inquiry into the issue, which began in response to January’s Presidents Club dinner scandal.
Government, regulators and employers had been “dodging their responsibilities” for far too long according to committee chair Maria Miller, who also added that under existing laws “There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action”.
A significant part of the government’s report focused on the failure of organisations to acknowledge and appreciate the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace, with a recent BBC survey highlighting 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour whilst at work. Reference was also made to poor governmental decisions, such as the one made in 2013 to remove the requirement on organisations to protect their workers from abuse by third parties, which was seen by many as a backwards step in efforts to prevent workplace harassment.
The committee’s full recommendations are as follows:
- Introduce a statutory code of practice for employers to prevent harassment, ensuring interns, volunteers or those harassed by third parties receive the same legal protection as workplace colleagues.
- Regulators should take a more active role by setting out the actions they plan to take to tackle sexual harassment at work and what sanctions will be put in place.
- Making enforcement processes work better for employees, including extending the time limit for bringing a claim and introducing more punitive damages for employers.
- Cleaning up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), making it an offence to misuse such clauses and extending whistleblowing protections so employees can report misuse to bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
- Collecting robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace, including the number of tribunal claims that involve sexual harassment complaints.
Although there is no guarantee that these proposals will be implemented by the UK government, they are surely reflective of the growing focus to address sexual harassment in the workplace. Organisations should use this as a reminder of their existing obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to protect staff from sexual harassment of any kind, ensuring all reported instances are thoroughly investigated and handled in a professional and serious manner.