Crack down on ‘banter’ at work, equality watchdog tells employers

EHRC chief writes to top CEOs calling for tougher action on workplace misconduct as new guidance on harassment is launched

Crack down on ‘banter’ at work, equality watchdog tells employers

The head of the UK’s equality watchdog has written directly to bosses of 400 top UK companies, calling on them to do more to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. 

In the letter, Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), told CEOs they needed to increase action against misconduct, and called for “a dramatic shift in workplace cultures”.

“Our employees must come to work knowing they will be safe and protected from discrimination, victimisation and harassment of any kind,” Hilsenrath wrote. “Recent high-profile cases have shone an important light on the continued harassment many women face in the workplace and showed that we still need to do more to modernise working cultures.”

The letter came alongside new guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace – which the EHRC said would become a statutory code of practice in due course – that reminds employers that unwanted ‘banter’ in the workplace could amount to harassment or sexual harassment.

“What one worker – or even a majority of workers – might see as harmless fun or ‘banter’, another may find unacceptable,” the guidance said, highlighting that unwanted behaviour that happens outside of the office, such as in the pub or online, could still be considered as happening in the course of employment.

Dame Heather Rabbatts, chair of anti-harassment campaign group Time’s Up UK, expressed support for the guidance, and said it would “go a long way to ensuring employers, workers and their representatives understand the extent and impact of harassment in the workplace”.

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However, while Gemma McCall, co-founder and managing director of tech firm Culture Shift and a contributor to the guidance, described the EHRC’s action as “a welcome step forward”, she also said it “could go further”. 

“Employers must adopt a victim-first mentality to tackle harassment in the workplace, recognise the barriers to reporting and take all steps to remove them,” she said. 

McCall called for employers to grant people who report workplace sexual harassment the option to remain anonymous, arguing that  “unless employers actively encourage reports, people will remain fearful of the repercussions. That will hold back real change.”

Kirsty Rogers, employment partner at law firm DWF, described the guidance as “invaluable”,  explaining that “while it is not mandatory for employment tribunals to take it into account, it will most certainly be used in evidence as an indicator of good or bad practice”.

Rogers approved of the information supplied to employers about the negative consequences of failing to address harassment, noting that “prevention is always better than cure” and adding: “The spotlight is firmly on sexual harassment – this is a business-critical issue.”