Employers will held liable if they fail to take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from experiencing sexual harassment at work, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has said.
The government has published its response to the 2019 sexual harassment in the workplace consultation, which includes number of commitments to protect workers from being subjected to inappropriate and lewd behaviour by colleagues and third parties including customers and clients.
New legislation will make employers liable for not taking action to prevent sexual harassment at work. Organisations will be required to take reasonable, proportionate steps, taking into count their size and circumstances.
Under current legislation, employers are already expected to take all reasonable steps to prevent workplace harassment, but the GEO expects this will be beefed up to include a new proactive duty on employers.
Minister for women and equalities Liz Truss said: “Every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence, in the workplace or anywhere else.
“We have listened carefully to the experiences shared as part of our consultation and are taking important steps to strengthen protections for women in the workplace.
“This package of measures will not only improve protections for those affected by harassment at work, but will also motivate employers to make improvements to workplace practices and culture which will benefit all employees.”
Other measures to be taken forward by the GEO include:
- introducing protections for employees from harassment by third parties, for example customers or clients.
- supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce a statutory code of practice.
- producing guidance for employers on how to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.
- looking closely at extending time limits for Equality Act based cases from three to six months.
The GEO said these measures will be introduced “in due course”.
Respondents to the GEO’s consultation were broadly supportive of in the introduction of a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. Fifty-seven per cent agreed with the approach and 60% thought it would prompt employers to prioritise the prevention of harassment.
Public questionnaire respondents were asked whether the law should require employers to take proactive steps to protect their staff from sexual harassment and 96% said “yes”.
The consultation response document says that introducing such a law is an “important and symbolic first step” to tackling harassment.
“Our focus on preventative action clearly signals what we expect of employers and should serve to motivate comprehensive responses to issues of sexual harassment. This should also have a positive effect on workplace culture more broadly,” it says.
However, the GEO does not think that extending such protection to volunteers would be appropriate.
“It is clearly right that an individual who gives their time for free to support their community or an issue they care about should be protected from harassment, discrimination and victimisation. However, extending protections to cover people carrying out ad hoc, informal volunteering, or those supporting small, volunteer-led organisations, could create a disproportionate level of liability and difficulties for the organisation, which could outweigh the service they provide,” it says.
Felicia Willow, chief executive of equality charity the Fawcett Society, said: “Harassment and violence against women and girls have no place in our society. In 2018 Fawcett published its landmark Sex Discrimination Law Review. In it we called for a range of specific changes to the legal system to better protect women from workplace sexual harassment.
“No woman should be subjected to abuse in their place of work and we are pleased that the government has taken this issue seriously and has acted on recommendations made in our review.
“Earlier this year Fawcett started developing resources to help employers combat sexual harassment. We look forward to sharing these and working closely with the government and partners on the detail of the changes announced today to ensure they really do result in the best protection for all women.”
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said the HR body was not convinced that the creation of a new duty on employers would have the desired impact, and said there was a risk of using legislation as a “blunt tool”.
“Much more can be done to bridge the gap regarding the law and its effective implementation in the workplace. Improving employers’ compliance with their existing legal obligations under the Equality Act would make more sense than creating a new duty,” he said.
“Consequently, it was a missed opportunity for government not to commit to improving enforcement by increasing EHRC resources to enable it to conduct more workplace inspections to investigate complaints and proactively inspect employers in sectors where there is highest risk of sexual harassment.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Employers must now protect their workers from all forms of harassment by customers and clients as well as from colleagues. This will help stamp out sexual harassment of women workers, and racist and homophobic abuse too. And it will make all public-facing workplaces safer – from shops to surgeries, salons to showrooms.
“If this is to be a genuine turning point, the government must change the law swiftly, put more resources into enforcing the new duties, and make sure victims have access to justice.
“Ministers have taken an important first step – but they must keep up the momentum. Sexual harassment at work is rife and needs tackling now.”