Employers to be given duty to prevent workplace harassment under new treaty

International convention set to come into effect next year will send ‘clear signal’ that businesses need to do more, experts say

Employers will have a new duty to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace as part of an international agreement on labour rights signed by the government.

The UK has become the eleventh country to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Violence and Harassment Convention which, when it comes into force next year, will create a duty for employers to protect employees from all forms of harassment, including from third parties such as customers or clients.

The treaty is designed to protect employees “irrespective of their contractual status”, meaning it will protect interns, job applicants, apprentices, and those whose employment has been terminated.

It will also apply in all areas of work, including on work trips, in break room facilities, virtual meetings, and during commuting.

Thérèse Coffey, secretary of state for work and pensions, said the UK already had “some of the strongest laws in the world to protect employees”, and that she hoped other countries would follow suit in ratifying the treaty.

“This government is committed to tackling all forms of violence and harassment and we will support employers to put the necessary measures in place to ensure everyone feels safe in their place of work,” she said.

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Michelle Last, employment partner at Keystone Law, said employers were already “duty bound” to protect employees, but that this announcement sent a “clear signal” that firms needed to do more.

Sexual harassment in the workplace in particular was of growing concern, she said. “Often employers do not know how to manage such situations, particularly where there is a criminal element,” she said. “This can lead to employers refusing to take action at all, allegedly for fear of impacting an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Last added that where employees deal with members of the public, employers should consider how they can proactively anticipate and address issues. “This might mean putting up signs warning customers about the need to treat staff with dignity and respect,” she said.

The treaty will come into force in the UK on 7 March 2023.