Employers should be duty-bound to prevent sexual harassment, say MPs

25 Jul 2018 By Hayley Kirton

Politicians propose wide-ranging changes but experts debate their impact

A group of influential MPs has called on the government to take action and oblige employers to prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces, in a detailed report published this morning. 

The Sexual harassment in the workplace report, which follows a six-month investigation by the women and equalities committee, proposed imposing a duty on employers to guard against sexual harassment, which would be backed up by a statutory code of practice clearly defining the steps they would be expected to take. The cross-party group added these rights should extend to interns and volunteers and should cover harassment committed by third parties. 

“There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action,” said Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke and chair of the women and equalities committee. “In contrast, there is considerable focus on other corporate governance issues like protecting people’s personal data and preventing money laundering, with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities. It's time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment.”

Helen Murphie, partner in Royds Withy King’s London employment team, added: “The current system is weighted against the victim; the burden is on an individual to complain and if their grievance falls on deaf ears, they can choose to suffer in silence, leave their job, or engage in an often protracted and stressful legal process to get access to justice...Putting a positive obligation on employers to take a proactive approach to prevent sexual harassment including complying with a statutory code of conduct is one way to help tackle the problem.” 

However, Kirsty Churm, senior associate in the employment team at Kingsley Napley, said it was unclear how the committee’s recommendations would build on already existing law.

“The Equality Act 2010 already prohibits sexual harassment...How would the proposed new duty on employers to prevent harassment differ in practice? And in the current political climate, will parliament realistically have sufficient time and resources to introduce new legislation in the near future?” she remarked. 

But Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion advisor at the CIPD, argued today’s report “puts a spotlight on the fact that employers should be preventing harassment”, regardless of its final legal effect. 

“Our view would also be that prevention is better than cure, so it’s important to develop a wider culture of inclusion, promote respect between employees at every level, and in particular, managers and senior leaders need to be held to account for setting guidelines for acceptable behaviour and role modelling,” she added.

The committee’s report also suggested overhauling the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), including making it an offence to use such documents to prevent complaints to the police or regulators, and called on companies to draft these controversial contracts in plain, easy-to-understand language.

Additionally, the committee called on the government to remove some of the barriers to bringing a tribunal claim, such as extending the time limit for lodging a case, bringing in punitive damages and addressing the cost associated with bringing a claim. The MPs also said more needed to be done to track how many tribunals were being brought involving allegations of a sexual nature. 

A ComRes poll, commissioned by the BBC and published last November, discovered two in five (40 per cent) women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

The MPs’ suggestions reflect many of those made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in March. The commission, which is responsible for enforcing a number of equalities laws, also called on the government to introduce a statutory code of conduct to require employers to prevent sexual harassment. 

Welcoming today’s report, Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said: “Everyone has the right to a safe working environment and no one should have to go to work afraid of how they might be treated by a manager, a customer or a colleague.”

The Government Equalities Office has been contacted for comment.

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