In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Women and Equalities Committee (the “Committee”) has published a report on sexual harassment in the workplace. The Report calls on the Government to tackle this widespread issue and to place the same stringent responsibilities on employers as it has for data protection and money laundering.
The Report follows on from an inquiry launched by the Committee which sought to determine several issues including how widespread sexual harassment is in the workplace; who experiences sexual harassment; who perpetrates it; and actions employers should be taking to change their workplace culture in order to prevent sexual harassment occurring.
A survey conducted in 2017 found that 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. This type of behaviour can range from an unwelcome sexual joke to a sexual assault. Sexual harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” which has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”. Whilst the public seem divided on what behaviour might fall within this definition, the Report has listed the following behaviours which it considers to be forms of sexual harassment: sexual jokes or comments, remarks about someone’s body or appearance, displays of pornographic material, cat calls or wolf-whistling, flashing, sexual advances, groping, sexual assault, or rape. It does not matter whether the behaviour was not meant, or indeed, not intentionally directed at a specific person; the behaviour will still constitute sexual harassment.
The Committee believes that “employers have failed to tackle workplace sexual harassment”. The volume of people reporting sexual harassment in the workplace has increased dramatically, despite the general consensus held by employees that making a complaint “reduces the likelihood of performing well and so reducing their chance of career progression”. In light of these issues, employers should ensure they have satisfactory procedures in place to deal with such complaints in an effective and sensitive manner. Employers should also ensure they deal with complaints confidentially and assure employees that no judgement will be made if they come forward.
The Report proposes relieving the burden on individuals. Individual employees are expected to speak up and raise a complaint or grievance when they are subjected to sexual harassment. The Committee suggests “a mandatory duty should be placed on employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation in the workplace”. This will shift the burden and will ensure protective measures are put in place to reduce any potential for this kind of behaviour.
Employers should ensure they have a policy in place which covers sexual harassment in the workplace and how employees’ complaints will be dealt with. Acas has suggested that “an employer should make clear to workers what sort of behaviour would be considered sexual harassment and that it is unacceptable.”
On the basis of their findings, the Committee has called on the Government to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment; ensure interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections and remedies as their workplace colleagues; require regulators to take a more active role; an improvement of enforcement processes; to clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements; and to determine the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.