Further to our previous update on the workplace sexual harassment bill, we now delve into recent changes to the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill. This article explains what the amendments mean for employers and provides an overview of what employers need to know about the proposed law.
Amendments to the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill
The Equality Act 2010 originally contained provisions which made an employer liable if an employee was harassed by a third party in the course of their employment. These provisions were repealed in 2013. However, when the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill was introduced, it contained provisions to re-introduce this employer liability.
This particular provision in the Bill received a great degree of criticism, and in the House of Lords objections to it were raised on the basis of the increased costs to employers, potential impediment of free speech and concerns over unnecessary state intervention in business. The government recognised the need to compromise on the provisions of the Bill to ensure its final passage and has now removed this liability from the Bill, meaning that employers will not be liable for the harassment of their employees by third parties. Nevertheless, this change is likely to come as a disappointment to those that were eager to see this liability re-introduced into UK employment law.
Another amendment to the Bill is that employers will only be required to take “reasonable steps” rather than “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment of their employees. Such steps could include training for managers and staff, and having robust policies and procedures for handling complaints. While this is a less onerous duty than the original wording would have imposed, it will still introduce a new general legal obligation requiring employers to take action to prevent sexual harassment.
The duty to take “reasonable steps”to prevent sexual harassment will be underpinned by a new statutory code to be published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and employment tribunals will be able to award a 25% uplift on compensation where an employee successfully brings a claim for sexual harassment and the employer is found to have breached this duty.
The other provisions of the Bill remain unchanged.
While employers should find that the new obligations are a little easier to satisfy than previously expected, it is important to remember their responsibilities under existing laws. Although the Equality Act 2010 does not currently impose a proactive obligation on employers to prevent harassment by third parties, to defend against any harassment claim it is necessary to demonstrate that all reasonable and practical steps were taken to prevent it from happening. This generally requires having strong policies and procedures in place, communicating these effectively with employees, providing regular training sessions and fostering an environment where staff feel comfortable reporting any issues or concerns. Therefore, even without new obligations being introduced by the incoming Bill (the date of implementation still to be confirmed), adhering to current legislation remains vital for every employer.
If you have any questions about the implications of the Bill or would like advice on protecting your employees from harassment, our Employment team would be happy to assist.