The recent media revelation of sexual harassment among Hollywood stars has shined a spotlight on sexual harassment at work. Indeed a report by the Women and Equalities Committee published on the 25th July 2018 showed that sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread and commonplace, with a BBC survey carried out in November 2017 reporting that 40% of women and 18% of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work.
Under laws introduced in 2005 sexual harassment can no longer be excused as “a bit of fun” if it can be interpreted as being potentially intimidating, hostile or humiliating. It is shameful that unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and rude and politically incorrect jokes are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in workplaces.
Experiencing sexual harassment is one of the most difficult situations a person can face at work. The effects can be traumatic. The report by the Women and Equalities Committee pointed out “It is time for the Government to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda. Currently there is little incentive for employers and regulators to take robust action to tackle and prevent unwanted sexual behaviours in the workplace. In contrast there is considerable focus on protecting people’s personal data and preventing money laundering, with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities in these areas. They should now put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment”.
It is a fact that employers are responsible for ensuring that employees do not face harassment in their workplace. They have a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect employees and will be legally liable if they fail to do so. That said, there is clear evidence of a lack of action by employers and regulators to tackle this problem leaving the burden of holding the harasser to account lying heavily on the individual who may not want to take forward a complaint due to fear of victimisation.
The Committee’s report calls on the Government to:
- Introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment, supported by a statutory code of practice outlining the steps they can take to do this
- Ensure that interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections and remedies as their workplace colleagues
- Make it a requirement of regulators to set out the actions they will take to help tackle the problem including the enforcement action they will take
- Reduce barriers to taking forward tribunal cases by extending time limits for submitting a claim, introducing punitive damages for employers and reducing cost risks for the employee
It waits to be seen whether and how the Government will introduce the changes but in the meantime any allegations of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously.