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Workplace Sexual Harassment

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Following on from the repeated issues of workplace sexual harassment being brought into the public eye in recent months the Equalities & Human Rights Commission has called on the Government to take urgent action in a report published in March entitled "Turning the tables: ending sexual harassment at work" in which the Commission sets out numerous recommendations after identifying widespread failures by employers to set out policies on sexual harassment in sufficient detail, support victims and provide fair and effective grievance processes.

The report sought to discover how sexual harassment is dealt with by employers by inviting input from Britain's largest employers across a wide range of sectors and drawing on the insights of individuals who have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Of the employers that responded a large number trained their line managers but it was identified that there was a failure to train any other staff, include guidance on acceptable behaviour in the induction process or provide information for customers or service users on appropriate behaviour towards staff.

750 responses were received from individuals through an online survey and nearly all of these were women. Three quarters of the responses were from people who had experienced sexual harassment and the remainder were witnesses to harassment.

Harassment from third parties was reported by a small proportion largely in the hospitality industry but there was a significant failing reported in these cases in respect of management support with individuals being told to put up with harassment from customers and such behaviour being viewed as a normal part of the job.

Currently, in order to avoid vicarious liability an employer must show that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent harassment in the workplace including having an anti harassment policy and appropriate procedures for reporting harassment and taking action. The Commission has called for a mandatory duty on employers to take steps to prevent harassment in the form of a statutory code of practice and for Tribunal's to have the ability to uplift any compensation by 25% for breach of the code.

Other recommendations are for:

  • ACAS to develop targeted sexual harassment training and for the government to develop an online tool to facilitate the reporting of such behaviour;
  • employers to publish their sexual harassment policy on their external website
  • legislation to be introduced making contractual clauses which seek to prevent disclosure of future acts of discrimination, harassment or victimisation void
  • safeguards to be put in place to restrict the use of confidentiality clauses preventing disclosure of past acts of harassment
  • extension of the limitation period for harassment claims in an Employment Tribunal to six months
  • reinstatement of protection from third party harassment but without the requirement to show two previous incidents; and
  • reintroduction of the statutory questionnaire.

Employers should ensure that they encourage a culture in which harassment is clearly understood to be unacceptable. Employers should also seek to ensure that victims of such harassment feel able to come forward knowing that they will be supported and effective action taken. Robust policies which are adhered to can help to engender such an environment. Training is also vitally important.

Employers may well find a surprising lack of knowledge amongst their staff as to the types of behaviour that can constitute harassment and training can help to prevent such behaviour occurring. Training can also ensure that any complaints of harassment are appropriately and effectively dealt with.

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.
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