‘Beginning of a much needed culture change’ – bill aiming to help prevent workplace sexual harassment to become law

But commentators ‘disappointed’ as some aspects are watered down for fear of employers facing costly lawsuits

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The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, which puts a duty on employers to stop harassment instead of relying on employees to report incidents, has reached the final stages of parliament and is set to become law.

First introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse in June 2022, the bill will likely be passed at some point this year, with the law coming into effect around a year after the bill’s passing. 

The House of Lords made two amendments to the final version of the bill, removing the proposed liability of employers for third-party harassment in the workplace and changing the requirement on employes to take “reasonable steps” rather than “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment.

Speaking in parliament last Friday (20 October), Hobhouse said the “narrowing” of the bill was a “shame.

“I cannot stand here and say that I am completely happy with the amendments, but if I did not accept them the bill would not progress into law and that would be a lot worse,” she told the House of Commons.

The difference in the wording means that employment tribunals will apply a lower threshold when assessing a breach of the employer duty compared with the original drafting of the bill, Hobhouse explained, but “once the bill has passed into law, it will be the beginning of a much-needed culture change.

“My bill…will make a real difference, as it will require employers to take proactive steps to address sexual harassment,” she said, and “it will ensure that people who abuse women and others can no longer rely on their workplaces turning a blind eye”.

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which has been campaigning to strengthen protection for women facing sexual harassment in the workplace, said: “It’s hard to believe that women have had to put up with this for so long, but it ends now.

“Working cultures that allow sexual harassment to thrive should be consigned to the history books – we need to look forward to truly equal workplaces.”

Employer guidance to come

Explaining the legalities of the amended bill, Chantelle de Filippis, employment expert and associate at Stevens and Bolton said, while the new legislation strengthens existing protection, “what is considered ‘reasonable’ will vary from business to business, depending on factors including the size of the workforce and relevant industry or sector.

“It is crucial that employers consider what measures to take, particularly in light of new, hybrid working environments,” she advised.

While the wording in the original bill was amended to appease Conservative peers’ concerns over free speech and employers being exposed to costly lawsuits, Hobhouse said that “the bill should be good for organisations because it protects them as well.

“The current laws on sexual harassment mean that employers often adopt individualised responses to institutional problems. That creates space for employers to minimise what is going on and leads to confusion about how to respond appropriately,” she said.

She added that while “there are many good employers who have implemented measures to safeguard their employees…far too many have not done enough to prevent and punish sexual harassment.

“What one also finds again and again is that the employer does not really know what to do. When the bill becomes law, there will be guidance for employers so that they know exactly what is expected of them. That should help organisations to face those problems,” Hobhouse said.

But de Filippis suggested employers “take action now” rather than wait for the new guidance, “to ensure they are taking appropriate pre-emptive steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace”. 

In a survey in September, People Management readers suggested ways in which employers and HR professionals can help tackle the root causes of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Susan Hetrick, a corporate reputation specialist and author of Toxic Organisational Cultures and Leadership: How to Build and Sustain a Healthy Workplace, said while the bill is a step in the right direction, she is “disappointed it has been so diluted”.

“[More than] 50 per cent of working women say they have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career and this rises to two thirds of those working in hospitality and medicine.

“This is completely unacceptable in the 21st century and it needs to be addressed unambiguously. 

“Let’s be clear. Toxic workplace cultures, in which sexual harassment becomes an accepted norm, can destroy corporate reputations and wreck the wellbeing of the individuals affected. 

“My hope is that employers will want to go much further than the standards demanded by the bill.”

Further reading

Where are we with tackling workplace sexual harassment?

Read People Management’s feature on sexual harassment in the workplace here