The House of Commons Women and Equalities Commission (WEC) has published its report on sexual harassment in the workplace following an inquiry that was launched in February 2018.
The report seeks to make tackling sexual harassment in the workplace a top priority in the workplace.
The WEC has found that sexual harassment at work is widespread and commonplace but that there has been a failure to tackle these unlawful behaviours. 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.
The WEC is supporting a recommendation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that employers should be placed under a mandatory duty to protect their employees from harassment and victimisation. This mandatory duty would be enforceable by the EHRC and supported by a statutory code of practice, with financial penalties attached for breaching the duty.
It has also been recommended that employees needed to be protected from harassment from third parties, for example clients and customers, and to protect volunteers and interns in the workplace. A duty for public sector employees to conduct a risk assessment as regards to sexual harassment and to take steps to mitigate has also been proposed.
The report considered the role of regulators, and recommends that regulators hold employers accountable if they were to fail to take reasonable steps. They should take greater responsibility to ensure that their members were taking action to prevent sexual harassment.
Enforcement procedures were also considered in the report. The recommendation of suggesting a code of conduct would be to highlight steps that an employer must take and this could be taken into account when deciding whether an employer had complied with its duties. The report suggests that the Employment Tribunal should have the discretion to apply an uplift of 25% to any compensation awarded for failure to comply with the code. The WEC would like to see that the tribunals are able to award punitive damages in these cases, and for employers to bear the employee’s cost in the event of a successful claim. In addition, the WEC recommended that the time limits to bring a discrimination claim including sexual harassment should be reviewed, the reinstatement of questionnaires and that systems be put into place to protect victims of sexual harassment similar to those available in criminal matters, such as evidence on screen.
It has also recommended that robust and comparable data be collected at regular intervals, on the number of claims submitted involving allegations of harassment of a sexual nature.
The WEC have called for non- disclosure agreements to be better controlled and regulated in respect of sexual harassment allegations. Whilst NDA’s can be used in an employment relationship where it is necessary to protect business interests, it should not be used to the effect that it prevents a victim from ever talking about it.
It will now be a matter for Government to decide whether there will be any legislative proposals as a result of the WEC’s recommendations and calls to make sexual harassment a top priority for the government and employers.
At this stage, employers should ensure that they have clear policies in place and that all employees are aware of whom to contact and how they can raise any concerns, and take any necessary and consistent action in relation to those concerns that are raised.