Employers warned of legal action if they fail to act on sexual harassment

Equality body EHRC writes to firms demanding evidence of safeguards and reporting mechanisms ahead of Christmas party season

Employer groups have welcomed new action from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) to clamp down on sexual harassment at work.

The commission this week revealed that it had written to the chairs of FTSE 100 companies and other leading employers demanding evidence of what they were doing to prevent sexual harassment.

The equality watchdog asked firms to provide them with details of the safeguards they had in place, steps they had taken to ensure all employees can report instances of harassment, and how their organisations planned to prevent harassment in the future, by 19 January.

The letter warned of legal action where there was evidence of systemic failures to deal with such behaviour. Sexual harassment is unlawful under the 2010 Equality Act, and employers can be held liable if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

The commission has launched its own guide to the law as it relates to sexual harassment, focusing on the problem following a wave of high-profile sexual harassment claims against politicians and actors.

Claire Williams, inclusion and diversity director at membership body Inclusive Employers, described the letter as a “really positive step”.

“Employers can take very practical steps to create a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment,” she said.

“Senior managers should give clear messages about standards and role model inclusive behaviour. In addition, staff must be supported with education on what is acceptable and how to respond to unacceptable behaviour.”

Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion chief executive Denise Keating said the letter and guidance was timely ahead of the Christmas season. “While it is to all of our shames that people still need to be reminded about what is acceptable in the workplace, the horror stories frequently being revealed in the media demonstrate that many of those who should know better are exhibiting unacceptable behaviours.”

Keating said employers must ensure they have robust reporting and management procedures that prevent sexual harassment at work from being swept under the carpet. “Whether committed by employees, clients or customers, the onus is always on the employer to protect staff from sexual harassment, and we have seen that employment tribunals are more than happy to impose punitive awards on employers that neglect their duty of care.”

The commission’s letter, seen by People Management, notes that research by the TUC last year found more than half of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work. One in eight reported unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them.

Gender equality in UK workplaces could create more than 800,000 female employees and add £150bn to GDP by 2025, according to research attributed by the commission to consultancy McKinsey.

Responsibility for ensuring implementation of the legal guidance should be given to each employer’s HR director, the commission added. “Where we discover evidence of systemic failings or refusal to engage with us, we will consider exercising our statutory enforcement powers,” warned the letter.

The commission’s guide said all employers were expected to communicate an anti-harassment policy to workers and ensure it was effectively implemented and reviewed. It added that they should maintain an appropriate procedure for reporting harassment, protecting victims and taking action against perpetrators.

Jemima Olchawski, head of policy and insight at women’s rights body the Fawcett Society, said: "No one should have to experience the humiliation and intimidation of sexual harassment. We all have a responsibility to take action to prevent and challenge these behaviours. Employers must ensure they are doing all they can to protect the women who work for them and to create a positive working culture.”

Christina Morton, employment lawyer at Withers, told People Management that the real difficulty many organisations face is that those accused of inappropriate sexual conduct towards colleagues are often powerful individuals who may be highly effective in their work. This makes them difficult and potentially costly to challenge. 

“Unless a culture of intolerance for sexual harassment begins in the boardroom, it is very difficult to eradicate it further down the organisation. So any measures taken – training, disciplinary action, confidential support for those complaining – must be owned and endorsed at board level,” said Morton. 

“The organisation must also have the courage to follow through if a complaint is made. The challenge of doing this, when some of the most senior people in the organisation may be implicated, is formidable.”

The commission has also, as part of new drive to combat harassment, launched a survey seeking accounts from people who have “experienced, witnessed or supported others with workplace sexual harassment”, in confidence, also for submission by 19 January.

This is “to ensure that the voices of people who have been affected shape the solutions that we propose”, it said. It was asking individuals “to let us know what they think might have helped in their case and what changes they think need to be made to tackle this issue”, the commission said.