In the last 12 months allegations about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry have dominated the world media. The coverage has sparked the #MeToo movement to raise awareness of sexual harassment by sharing how widespread sexual harassment experiences are in all walks of life and workplaces.
The Women and Equalities Commission (a Parliamentary Committee) has now produced a report on sexual harassment in the workplace as it found that employers were responding to a greater number of allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace following the #MeToo movement. Their concern is to ensure that “the urgency of action by employers and by Government to tackle workplace sexual harassment does not wane” after the media coverage inevitably dies down.
In their call to action report they ask employers to put sexual harassment at the top of their agendas, raise awareness, make enforcement and reporting processes better, require regulators to take a more active role, clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment, and collect better data about the extent and nature of the problem.
In summary, it recommends:
• a mandatory duty on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, enforceable by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and punishable by specific fines
• a duty for public sector employers to conduct risk assessments for sexual harassment, and take steps to mitigate any risks
• reintroducing third party harassment, so that employers are liable if they have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent others harassing their staff
• extending sexual harassment protection to interns and volunteers
• extension of the time limit for bringing a claim to six months, with the clock paused while any internal grievance process is ongoing
• enabling tribunals to award punitive damages in sexual harassment cases and making employers responsible to pay the employee’s legal costs if it loses a sexual harassment case as a default position
• limiting the ability to use confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements to ‘government approved’ standard clauses
• making it a professional disciplinary offence (and in certain cases a criminal offence) for lawyers to propose the use of a non-approved confidentiality clause
Sexual harassment at work is not a new problem; however, the increased media profile of the problem has undoubtedly resulted in more allegations coming to the fore.
Employers must always take allegations of sexual harassment seriously and be mindful that they will be liable for the conduct of employees unless they can show that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such conduct from taking place.
We will be covering sexual harassment in the workplace at our employment law update seminars this October, setting out how to combat sexual harassment in the workplace and the steps to take when faced with allegations.
For further information and to book, click here.