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A new duty for employers to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace
The Government announced in July that it will be implementing a new mandatory duty for employers to take measures to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Recognising that working patterns have been drastically different this past year and a half, with the majority of people working from home, the Government is looking at when people return to the offices and the need for a cultural and societal change in office practices. The Government considers this time an ideal opportunity to refocus on ensuring work environments are safe and free from harassment, whether employees work from home or move back into the office.
The Government consultation involved a public questionnaire, which obtained 4,215 responses. Of this pool of respondents, 54% said they had experienced harassment at work, with 62% of that figure being women. Sexual harassment in the workplace is already unlawful but the recent report released by the Government demonstrates a new commitment to better tackle and hopefully reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.
The #Metoo movement on social media prompted multiple investigations, reports and initiatives to better address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Following the Government’s consultation that closed in October 2019, a report has finally been released which details the following:
- A mandatory duty will be imposed upon employers to prevent sexual harassment. It is expected that employers will be required to take “all reasonable steps” to make the workplace safer making this a proactive obligation.
- Explicit protections will be re-introduced for third party harassment (for example, harassment by a customer or a supplier).
- Protection will not be explicitly extended to volunteers and interns. The Government considers that most interns will be covered by the existing provisions in the Equality Act and extending provisions to volunteers could create difficulty with the issue of liability for organisations particularly in the third sector.
- Consideration will be given to extending the time limit to bring a claim of sexual harassment under the Equality Act from 3 months to 6 months. This will allow a longer timeframe for victims to bring claims.
The Government believes that the above will motivate and encourage employers to do more to improve the workplace and the cultures within. As these legislative changes will “be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows” it is still unclear at this stage what this new duty will fully entail.
What does this mean for now?
As organisations await further guidance from the Government and for these changes to become law, what proactive steps can employers take now?
Employers can start to review their equality and diversity strategies, introduce or update Anti-harassment and Bullying policies, improve workplace practices and cultures within your organisation and have strict measures in place to deal with sexual harassment as and when it occurs. Employers should ensure adequate training of all staff and managers to ensure that your workforce know how to spot and deal with this issue following the appropriate policies in place. It may also be sensible to audit existing policies and procedures against the new obligations expected to come into force, especially regarding third party harassment.
We will be providing further updates as they become available. In the meantime, we can assist your organisation in reviewing current strategies and policy documents in anticipation of these new requirements.