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Sexual harassment in the workplace – plans for reform

An action plan to tackle the 'widespread and commonplace' problem of sexual harassment in the workplace has been put forward by a group of MPs who are critical of the current lack of protection for workers.

The Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) published its report after a six-month long inquiry into the issue following allegations of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, including against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Survey

It also follows a BBC survey last year which found that 53% of women and 20% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment at work. Of these, 63% of women and 79% of men said they hadn't reported it.

The plan calls for measures including a new duty on employers to prevent harassment, giving claimants longer to bring tribunal claims and clarifying the legal position on the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Clarity for victims and employers

The report has received widespread approval including from TUC General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, who said: "Sexual harassment has a huge impact on women's lives and careers. The TUC supports making employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment.

"It's good to see the committee recommend long-overdue reforms to the tribunal system so that it works for victims of sexual harassment and a new code of practice for employers too."

Background to report

The investigation by the WEC found that when it comes to sexual harassment, the majority of employers don't have clear policies, codes of conduct or strategies for communicating and monitoring the problem.

In addition:

  • Policies that do cover sexual harassment, often only make a minimal reference to it;
  • Only 2 out of 5 employers include information at staff induction about workplace behaviour or how to report issues with it.

As a result, the burden of tackling sexual harassment at work lies with individual workers with little incentive for employers to take robust action, says the WEC.

WEC chair, Maria Miller MP, added: "It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces. Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long."

Details

The WEC is urging radical reform to make tackling sexual harassment at work a priority for the Government, employers and regulatory bodies like the health and Safety Executive (HSE) and European Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Its five point plan includes:

  • Putting sexual harassment at the top of the agenda including introducing a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from sexual harassment in the workplace, including interns and volunteers, enforceable by the EHRC and punishable by fines;
  • Requiring regulators, like the HSE and EHRC, to ensure that the employers they regulate take action to protect their workers from sexual harassment, with failure to do so a breach of the public sector equality duty;
  • Improving enforcement processes for employees including extending the time limit for bringing a sexual harassment claim to six months;
  • Enabling tribunals to award punitive damages and creating an expectation that the employer will pay an employee's costs if it loses the case;
  • Cleaning up and regulating the use of NDAs including making sure they aren't used to prevent or dissuade victims from reporting incidents of sexual harassment;
  • Collecting better data on sexual harassment including the number of tribunal claims submitted and their outcomes and a three yearly survey on the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment in the workplace with an action plan in response.

Employers - what now?

It is crucial to have a clear code of conduct when it comes to expectations of behaviour in the workplace. There should be transparent reporting procedures for any sexual harassment claims, clearly communicated in the staff handbook, as well as a commitment to dealing with complaints effectively and consistently.

One of the best ways to reduce the prospect of sexual harassment is to encourage a culture of equality with equal pay and promotion for women.

To read our previous article on the seven things employers should be aware of when it comes to sexual harassment, please click here.

For help and guidance about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors' Employment Law Consultant Solicitor, Julia Beasley.