HM Insights

What could the Government's new consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace mean for employers?

The revelations that have emerged since the start of the #metoo movement in 2017 have made it abundantly clear that sexual harassment is a problem not only generally in society, but also the workplace, despite the existence of legal protections set out in the Equality Act.

Now, following a 2018 report on sexual harassment in the workplace by the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC), the Westminster government has issued a consultation document seeking views on new measures to prevent sexual harassment within the workplace.

This consultation opened on 11th July and closes on 2nd October 2019 and can be found here.

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The Government has acknowledged that the Equality Act already sets out strong and clear protections against sexual harassment in the workplace and that employers are liable for harassment carried out by their employees at work, unless they have taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent it.

However, despite the fact that there is such a clear legal position on this issue there is significant evidence to suggest that workplace sexual harassment remains widespread. The Government believes that this suggests that employers are not taking adequate steps to prevent harassment from happening.

The proposals

Work is already underway on a new statutory Code of Practice on sexual harassment and harassment at work. This will be led by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who will consult on the Code of Practice separately. The indication is that adherence to the new Code may provide a statutory defence and a failure to adhere will indicate that employers haven't taken all reasonable steps.

The Government is consulting on additional proposals many of which were suggested by the WESC report. Following on from the new Code of Practice, it is suggested that employers will need to take a more proactive role in dealing with harassment and they must play a larger role in preventing harassment from occurring in the first place. It is suggested that a failure to comply with the duty will lead to an award of a standard compensatory payment akin to the 13 weeks' gross pay awarded where there has been a failure to inform and consult under the TUPE regulations. This duty would be subject to dual-enforcement from individuals and the EHRC directly.

The consultation also contains proposals for amendments to existing legislation such as new and explicit provisions on third party harassment and an extension of the existing workplace protections to volunteers and interns who currently fall out with the protections.

The final proposal is to extend the time limits to raise a tribunal claim from three months up to six months for claims of sexual harassment or pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

How can employers deal with potential changes?

Whilst this is at consultative stage only, the impetus behind the proposals strongly suggests that these changes will be brought in (at least in part), meaning that all employers will need to be mindful of the proposals.

Employers will be expected to take greater action to prevent sexual harassment happening in the workplace and therefore will need policies and procedures to match. Further, we would always recommend that the introduction of these polices would need to be complemented by appropriate training and raising awareness.

Get in touch

If your business requires support in this area, or you would like us to review your current policies, then please contact a member of our team.