The Equality and Human Rights Commission has issued new guidance on dealing with sexual harassment at work.
In a letter to employers and industry groups, EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath outlined how executives must ensure that “employees come to work knowing they will be safe and protected from discrimination, victimisation and harassment of any kind”.
Harassment in the workplace
The advice builds on the findings of the EHRC’s Turning the Tables report, published in 2018, which recommended that employers should have a legal duty to prevent sexual harassment.
It reminds employers that harassment can take the form of physical gestures, jokes or pranks, and banter in the workplace.
Alongside technical guidance designed to offer employment tribunals and courts a framework to make decisions on whether harassment has taken place, the EHRC recommends employers take seven steps to prevent and deal with sexual harassment at work:
- Develop an effective anti-harassment policy
- Engage staff with regular one-to-ones and have an open door policy
- Assess and mitigate risks in the workplace
- Consider using a reporting system that allows workers to raise an issue anonymously or in name
- Train staff on what sexual harassment in the workplace looks like, what to do if workers experience it and how to handle complaints
- Act immediately when a harassment complaint is made
- Treat harassment by a third-party just as seriously as that by a colleague
Hilsenrath said that in the two years since the #MeToo movement gained traction, some employers had “woken up” to the need to prevent sexual harassment at work, but it was time for others to follow suit.
She said: “The issue is not going to go away and if we are going to create working environments where no one is ever made to feel unsafe or threatened, then we need a dramatic shift in workplace cultures.
“No form of harassment can ever be justified and for too long the onus has been on the victim to challenge inappropriate treatment. By setting out legal requirements and providing practical examples on preventing and responding to harassment, we hope that our guidance will shift the burden back on to employers.”
The guidance discourages the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) unless they are “necessary and appropriate”. Julie Dennis, head of diversity at Acas, welcomed the guidance and said the conciliation service would issue further guidance for employers on the use of NDAs next month.
She said: “The use of non-disclosure agreements in discrimination and sexual harassment cases have also been in the spotlight and we are launching new advice on NDAs next month to help prevent their misuse at work.
“It is vitally important for workplace environments to be open, inclusive and welcoming so that staff feel safe.”
Kirsty Rogers, an employment partner at law firm DWF, said the EHRC’s guidance was a likely precursor to a statutory code of practice.
She advised: “The guidance sets out the severe economic consequences for employers failing to address sexual harassment in the workplace, including low morale, poor workforce relations, high levels of stress, reduced staff engagement, higher turnover of workers, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and damage to reputation.
“Additionally, it directly identifies the sheer scale of the problem and why preventative action is necessary. Prevention is always better than cure and clarity on what is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace, as well as the consequences for not adhering to standards, is fundamental. The spotlight is firmly on sexual harassment – this is a business-critical issue.”