Employers to be liable if they don’t prevent sexual harassment

Ignoring sexual harassment in the workplace will no longer be an option

Employers will be held liable if they fail to take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from experiencing sexual harassment at work, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has said.

The Government has said it will introduce a duty requiring employers to prevent sexual harassment following a public consultation in 2019.

The Government also announced an intention to reintroduce protection against harassment from third parties, such as customers, clients, suppliers or members of the public. The changes were announced as part of wider proposals to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls, including street harassment, sexual assault and rape.
Bullying and sexual harassment are growing areas of concern for all organisations. Indeed, a 2019 survey revealed that 90% of respondents had been bullied in the workplace— with 51% of those by a boss or manager.

Commenting on the announcement the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “We welcome these commitments as in our ‘Turning the Tables‘ report, published in 2018, we advised the Government that it should introduce a mandatory duty and extend the time limits for bringing a case to Employment Tribunal. The Government has said it will look closely at extending the time limit for bringing Equality Act 2010 based cases to the Employment Tribunal from three months to six months.”

The EHRC plans to work with the Government to produce a statutory Code of Practice on harassment at work.

Under current legislation, employers are already expected to take all reasonable steps to prevent workplace sexual harassment. Still, the GEO expects this will be beefed up to include a new proactive duty on employers.

Andy Nickolls, Director of Compliance Solutions EMEA at Skillsoft, says: “While most corporations have a structured program to address harassment, unfortunately, many still don’t fully reflect the challenges of addressing the core issues with a remote workforce.

“Part of the problem is that existing approaches were never designed with the circumstances of the last 12 months in mind.”

HR teams may need to update policies and internal communications to help remote employees and fulfil their obligations set out by employment law and company policy. These should make it clear that all forms of harassment and mistreatment are illegal even when working remotely. The context and location of the work do not equal any relaxation in how people should treat each other. Policies should also draw on language that is relevant to remote work to ensure expectations are clear and not open to interpretation.

Says Nickolls: “By renewing their stance on defeating harassment and mistreatment, HR teams can ensure they offer the maximum level of protection to their colleagues working in the office and at home while maintaining a strong focus on compliance. Similarly, people who witness the commitment of their employer to wellbeing may feel more confident in reporting incidents to HR colleagues.”

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