Employers 'must do more to prevent sexual harassment'

Employers must do more to prevent sexual harassment and remove toxic cultures in many workplaces, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The Commission makes several recommendations to improve protection for employees in a new report, Turning the tables: ending sexual harassment at work.

The report is based on evidence gathered from 1,000 employers and employees between December 2017 and February this year. The report says: “We uncovered the shocking and stark reality of individuals whose careers and mental and physical health have been damaged by corrosive cultures which silence individuals and normalise harassment.

“We also found a lack of consistent, effective action on the part of too many employers.”

The Commission defines sexual harassment as: “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which is intended to, or has the effect of, violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

“Examples include unwelcome physical contact, sexual comments, promises in return for sexual favours and displaying sexually graphic pictures.”

The research found that the most common perpetrator of harassment was a senior colleague. However, just under a quarter reported being harassed by customers, clients or service users.

The report says: “Around half our respondents hadn’t reported their experience of harassment to anyone in the workplace. Barriers to reporting included the view that raising the issue was useless as the organisation did not take the issue seriously, a belief that alleged perpetrators, particularly senior staff, would be protected, fear of victimisation, and a lack of appropriate reporting procedures.

“One respondent told us that they ‘felt too intimidated to go to senior management as all were male and colluded with harassment’.

“A number of respondents, in particular younger workers and those not on permanent contracts, believed they would be risking their jobs if they complained.”

The Commission is recommending that the government introduces a statutory code of practice and a new mandatory duty for all employers to take effective steps to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

“These measures will provide employers with clear guidance on what is required of them and ensure that there are consequences for failure to follow that guidance.”

Other recommendations include:

  • a requirement for the government to develop an online tool to make it easier to report sexual harassment
  • all employers should be required to publish their sexual harassment policy on their website
  • restrict the use of non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses that prevent employees speaking out about sexual harassment
  • making discussion of harassment more open to encourage reporting of incidents.

The government hasn’t formally responded to the recommendations, but it has stated in the past that it is determined to tackle the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.

We shall keep clients informed of developments.

View the full ECHR report here https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/turning-tables-ending-sexual-harassment-work

Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of employment law.

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