Employers must do more to protect against sexual harassment at work, says committee

Reports of sexual harassment by producer Harvey Weinstein led to a flood of claims that others had been harassed at work

Attempts to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace have been inadequate and there has been a “failure to tackle unlawful behaviours” according to a report published today by the Women and Equalities Committee.

The report follows a six-month inquiry into the issue, prompted in part by incidents earlier this year at the Presidents Club where female employees were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) so customers’ lewd behaviour would go unreported, and reports of sexual harassment by shamed Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

It suggests a five-point plan to tackle sexual harassment at work, which recommends:

  • A new duty on employers to prevent harassment, supported by a statutory code of practice. This would also ensure that interns, volunteers or those harassed by third parties receive the same legal protection as workplace colleagues.
  • Regulators take a more active role by setting out the actions they plan to take to tackle sexual harassment at work and what sanctions will be put in place.
  • Making enforcement processes work better for employees, for example by making it easier to bring a tribunal claim. It proposes extending the time limit for bringing a claim and introducing more punitive damages for employers.
  • Cleaning up the use of NDAs, making it an offence to misuse such clauses and extending whistleblowing protections so employees can disclose to bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
  • Collecting robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace, including the number of tribunal claims that involve sexual harassment complaints.

A survey by the BBC and ComRes earlier this year found that 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.

The WEC cited evidence of “inconsistent and inadequate practice” in employers’ current methods of protecting employees from sexual harassment. Evidence collected by the EHRC found that: “While some employers had effective approaches including clear policies, codes of conduct, and strategies for communication and monitoring, they were in a small minority.”

Policies that did cover sexual harassment, it found, often made only minimal reference to it. Only two in five employers included information in staff induction about the behaviours expected in the workplace and how to report it when behaviour falls below that standard.

The report added that employers needed to become more accountable for unacceptable behaviour. It said: “In the absence of comprehensive action by employers and of a stringent regulatory regime, the burden of tackling sexual harassment at work rests with individual workers.”

Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces.Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long.

“There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action. 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.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady added that sexual harassment had “a huge impact on women’s lives and careers”.

She said: “The TUC supports making employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment. And it’s good to see the committee recommend long-overdue reforms to the tribunal system so that it works for victims of sexual harassment, and a new code of practice for employers too.”

Samantha Mangwana, a solicitor specialising in sexual harassment cases at law firm CM Murray LLP, said the government must now respond “with more than warm words”.

She said: “It’s important that employers have a clear understanding of what they should be doing to protect their workforce. It’s right that the onus should be on the employer to take positive preventative action, as it is with anti-money laundering regulations and data protection. The UK has so far been behind other countries on this.”

“Extending the three month time limit for bringing claims for sexual harassment is also welcome. Victims often aren’t in a position, whether financially or psychologically, to bring a claim within three months of what may have been a really traumatic event.”

Mangwana added that better policing of the use of NDAs would be a positive move. “Used right, they can protect victims as well as employers. We’ve seen horror stories recently with the examples of gagging clauses in the Zelda Perkins/Harvey Weinstein and Presidents Club.

“Making it clear what NDAs can and cannot lawfully prevent people from disclosing – in plain English and including the fact that they cannot be used to prevent crimes being reported to the relevant authorities – has to be a good thing.”

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