Urgent action needed to better protect sexual harassment victims at work

Legal duty to prevent harassment is necessary to combat inconsistent and ineffective responses by organisations

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has gathered evidence from 1,000 individuals and organisations to examine how sexual harassment at work can be prevented whilst protecting victims of harassment. The “Turning the tables: ending sexual harassment at work” report follows a very public reveal of the significant number of incidents of workplace sexual harassment across a number of sectors, from Hollywood to politics.

The Trade Union Congress found, in 2017, that over half of women had experienced incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace. The EHRC believe employees are suffering in silence due to toxic workplace cultures, the fear of victimisation and the ineffective response of their employer to incidents of sexual harassment.

The EHRC have called on the government to make it a legal duty for employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation. Currently, employers can defend against a claim of vicarious liability for harassment by proving they took reasonable steps to prevent the unlawful act from occurring. The EHRC believe this defence does not encourage employers to take best practice steps to prevent harassment nor provide workers with sufficient protection. The introduction of a mandatory duty would help bring about significant cultural change and, if breached, would allow the EHRC to take enforcement action against the organisation.

Other recommendations include:

  • the government should introduce a statutory code of practice on workplace harassment and sexual harassment. The code will include steps employers have to take to prevent harassment occurring and steps to take when responding to an incident. Tribunals would have the power to uplift compensation in harassment claims for a breach of the code by the organisation
  • every three years the government should carry out a review of sexual harassment at work. After each review, an action plan should be published to address workplace discrimination
  • organisations should be required to publish their sexual harassment policy and the steps they take to implement the policy in their business
  • legislation needs to be enacted to prevent non-disclosure agreements being used to prevent disclosures of future discriminatory, harassing or victimising acts
  • the power for employment tribunals to make recommendations should be restored to allow tribunals to have the opportunity to require the organisation to improve their workplace practices
  • liability for third party harassment under the Equality Act 2010 should be reinstated. The requirement for the employer to have knowledge of previous harassing acts should be removed to ensure the organisation is providing protection for employees.

The Chief Executive of the EHRC, Rebecca Hilsenrath, has said “We need urgent action to turn the tables in British workplaces, shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it.”

« Back to News