Employers urged to adopt zero-tolerance approach to workforce harassment and discrimination.
IKEA has signed a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) known as a section 23 agreement amid concerns over how it has handled sexual harassment complaints made by a former UK worker.
The legally binding agreement with the EHRC commits the Swedish homeware and furniture giant to a number of measures to better protect workers in the UK and is likely to last until August 2025. In exchange, the EHRC will not take enforcement action against the organisation but they will monitor IKEA’s compliance with the agreement to ensure all actions are completed within the agreed timescales and can use its legal powers as a regulator to enforce the action plan.
The EHRC first contacted IKEA in February 2022 after being made aware of an allegation of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace by a former employee. Reports indicated that these allegations were not appropriately handled by management at one of their UK stores.
Under the terms of the legally binding agreement, the firm has committed to reviewing the way it deals with sexual harassment and meeting its responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. Steps it must take are:
- communicate a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment to all staff
- work with a specialist external law partner to support the organisation in reviewing its policies and processes relating to sexual harassment, and to improve its responses to complaints
- provide training on the enhanced policies and processes regarding harassment and sexual harassment to HR staff and all line managers
Other employers who have entered into similar arrangements with EHRC are Sainsburys in 2019 and more recently, Macdonalds who entered into such an agreement in February this year agreeing to similar objectives as IKEA. In 2021, Pontins, a holiday-park operator in the UK, entered a 12-month agreement with EHRC to address claims that it discriminated against Irish Travellers by allegedly compiling a list of surnames and screening people by phone to keep members of that community out of its venues.
In addition to the high profile section 23 agreements with EHRC the Government is supporting the Private Members' Bill, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill (although there is no date as yet for the implementation of these requirements). This Bill will create:
- employer's liability for third-party harassment (such as a customer, client, supplier or contractor) which means an employee could therefore be harassed by simply overhearing an offensive conversation by customers); and
- a statutory duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees such as training for managers and staff, as well as having robust procedures for responding to complaints.
The duty will be enforceable by the EHRC under its existing powers and will be backed up with a new statutory code of practice detailing what action employers should take. An employer who fails to take reasonable steps could also face an uplift in compensation if an employee brings a successful sexual harassment claim.
Steps to take
Every employer is responsible for protecting its workforce and sexual harassment should not be tolerated and as referred to above, this will be extended to cover third party harassment. Employers will therefore need to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to offensive comments and make sure customers, clients and other third parties are aware of this. Employers should not assume that a low level of reporting means there is no problem with sexual harassment in the workplace, or that policies and procedures alone are enough to stop harassment from happening.
Employers may wish to take this opportunity to review policies, procedures and workplace training in order to ensure their systems and processes withstand scrutiny.
The Employment Team at Rollits can provide tailored training to meet the needs of your business not only in relation to workplace harassment and other forms of discrimination but many other areas including disciplinary and grievance.