Employers could be legally required to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment at work under new reforms proposed by the government.
In response to its consultation on harassment in the workplace, the government said it would bring forward legislation to create this new “preventative duty” for employers as soon as parliamentary time allowed.
The government also plans to introduce a duty to protect employees from harassment by third parties, such as customers or clients, and said it would publish new guidance and a statutory code of practice for employers on how to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.
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It is also considering extending the time allowed to bringing sexual harassment cases to employment tribunal from three to six months, although it hasn’t specified when the measures will be introduced.
Liz Truss, minister for women and equalities, said the package of measures would not only protect women at work but “motivate employers to make improvements to workplace practices and culture”.
"We have listened carefully to the experiences shared as part of our consultation and are taking important steps to strengthen protections for women in the workplace.
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"Every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence, in the workplace or anywhere else,” she added.
The proposals have been welcomed by unions and charities. Felicia Willow, interim chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said the charity was “pleased that the government has taken this issue seriously”, while Julie Dennis, head of diversity and inclusion at Acas, said her organisation “support[ed] the government’s aim to tackle this unacceptable behaviour”.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said the announcements should ensure employers were clearer about their responsibilities in preventing sexual harassment at work, welcoming in particular the creation of a statutory code of practice for employers and the legal duty to make employers “more clearly liable for the sexual harassment of staff by customers, clients and other third parties”.
But, Willmott warned creating a proactive duty for employers to protect staff from sexual harassment might not have the desired impact. “Employers are already required under the law to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of workers by their colleagues,” he said.
“Much more can be done to bridge the gap regarding the law and its effective implementation in the workplace. Improving employers’ compliance with their existing legal obligations under the Equality Act would make more sense than creating a new duty.”
Louise Skinner, employment partner at Morgan Lewis, added that the proposals did not set out any detail on either the new proactive duty on employers or the third party protection. “It remains to be seen exactly what the full impact will be for employers and employees.
“That said, it would be prudent for employers to review their anti-harassment policies and training programmes now to ensure they have a robust framework in place for preventing harassment,” Skinner said, adding that this would allow them to adapt more effectively once the new regime has been implemented.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said it was a “victory [...] for every single one of those survivors who shared their experiences of sexual harassment at work to bring about change.
“Ministers have taken an important first step – but they must keep up the momentum. Sexual harassment at work is rife and needs tackling now,” she said.
The consultation, which ran in 2019, came after the 2018 Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) report on sexual harassment in the workplace.
It received responses from more than 130 charities and employers, and more than 4,000 members of the public – more than half (54 per cent) of whom said they have experienced sexual harassment at work.