Earlier this week the government unveiled measures designed to combat sexual harassment at work.
The Women and Equalities Select Committee reported earlier this year that sexual harassment in the workplace is “widespread and commonplace”. It recommended that the government put sexual harassment at the top of its agenda, advising that (a) regulators should take a more active role, (b) enforcement processes should be modified to work better for employees and set out in code of practice; and (c) the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) should be reviewed.
Following that report, the government has agreed:
- to the introduction of a new Code of Practice designed to give employers a better understanding of their legal responsibilities to protect staff;
- to carry out awareness-raising work with ACAS, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and employers;
- to check that the list of organisations who can receive whistleblowing information includes the correct organisations;
- to publish data on workplace sexual harassment at least every three years; and
- to consult on a variety of issues including (i) the oversight and regulation of NDAs, (ii) ways to strengthen and clarify the laws in relation to third-party harassment, (iii) the evidence for extending employment tribunal time limits for Equality Act 2010 cases, and (iv) the potential introduction of a new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
Reaction to the news has been mixed, with some criticising the government for failing to introduce a new duty on employers. The Committee launched the initial inquiry as a way to harness the momentum of the #MeToo movement to produce practical recommendations for change. It remains to be seen how the government will use the results of the upcoming consultations, and what exactly the Code of Practice will prescribe. Tribunals are usually required to consider such Codes when deciding whether an employer has failed to comply with its duties.
In the meantime, employers should ensure that they have processes in place to identify and deal appropriately with allegations of harassment in the workplace and generally to ensure their employees are sufficiently protected. This should include a review of appropriate policies (equal opportunities, discipline and grievance) and checking that whistleblowing policies, reporting lines and procedures are clear and up-to-date.