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Woman and Equalities Committee report calls for a more proactive approach to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

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The Women and Equalities Committee has published the results of its six-month long inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace. Supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendation that employers should have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, the report found that employers and regulators have not been doing enough to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • the introduction of a statutory Code of Practice;
  • the introduction of a public sector equality duty, requiring employers to conduct risk assessments and take action to mitigate those risks;
  • the re-introduction of the Equality Act provisions on third-party harassment, this time without the need for previous instances of harassment to have occurred;
  • an increase in the time limit for bringing employment-related sexual harassment claims from three months to six months;
  • the introduction of legislation requiring the use of standard, approved confidentiality clauses in non-disclosure agreements;
  • making it a criminal offence for an employer (or their adviser) to propose a confidentiality clause designed to prevent or limit the making of a protected disclosure; and
  • making sexual harassment by a regulated person a breach of professional standards and an offence attracting sanctions.

In terms of enforcement, the report suggests that the Code of Practice should be treated in a similar way to the ACAS Code, allowing tribunals the discretion to apply a 25% uplift to any award granted in circumstances where there is a breach of the Code. The report also proposes introducing a presumption that an employer will pay the claimant’s legal costs in respect of successful sexual harassment claims and supports the re-introduction of the tribunal’s powers to make wider recommendations to employers arising out of successful discrimination claims.

Ultimately, the report advocates a tougher line on sexual harassment in the workplace, through both legislative change and the creation of a work place culture in which sexual harassment claims are taken seriously.

Although the recommendations are yet to be supported by changes to the law, sexual harassment in the workplace remains a topical issue and future legislative change is likely. We will be keeping an eye on developments in this area and so please watch this space for future legal updates.