As part of a package to measures to clarify the law on sexual harassment the UK government will develop a code of practice for employers on workplace sexual harassment.
The code of practice is to be developed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and examine employers’ legal responsibilities to protect their staff from harassment. Within these measures the government plans to consult on reforming non-disclosure agreements (NDAs); soldifying the laws regarding third party harassment; and possibly introducing a new legal duty on employers to actually prevent sexual harassment at work.
The plans were announced by Victoria Atkins, the government’s minister for women, in response to a report on workplace sexual harassment published by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee. “Sexual harassment at work is illegal, but sadly that disgusting behaviour is something that many women still experience today,” Said Atkins. “We are taking action to make sure employers know what they have to do to protect their staff, and people know their rights at work and what action to take if they feel intimidated or humiliated. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work,” she said.
“A government response to sexual harassment in the workplace is about time. Especially with over 40% of women saying that have been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual behaviour as some point durng their careers. Men are also subject to unwanted sexual behaviour at work. The workplace should be free of unwanted sexual behavior for all genders.” Said Tom Street, founder of employment law specialists Tribunal Claim.
In response to the committee’s report, the government reiterated that it “shared [the] concerns that evidence suggests many employers are currently failing their employees in their responsibility to prevent sexual harassment, and in the systems they have in place for dealing with it when it does occur”.
The code of practice, to be developed by the ECHR, would be created to support employers and to help them understand and demonstrate that ‘all reasonable steps’ have been taken to prevent harassment, in accordance with the existing law.
The new code of practice in the Government’s view will “have the same impact” as a plan by the committee to put in place a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation at work.
In addition, it is the intention of the government is to monitor how employment tribunals consider the new code of practice in the applied remedies in sexual harassment cases. However, there are no plans to link compensation awards to any breaches.
In the report published in July, the committee highlighted it’s concern regarding reports over the unethical use of NDAs and confidentiality clauses by employers when settling cases of sexual harassment at work. The government’s response agreed that NDAs need better regulation. Especially to ensure that employees are clear that signing an NDA will not usually prevent them from the right to make a public interest disclosure and pursue the matter to an employment tribunal. The intention is to consult on the best way to do this, considering the committee’s recommendation of a standard approved confidentiality clause.
Further, the government will consult on the best ways to strengthen and clarify the laws concerning employers’ duties to protect their staff from third party harassment and whether additional protections are required for volunteers and interns, who don’t benefit from employee status and many not be covered by the same legal protections.
The government commitment also extends to working with industry regulators to make sure that they are taking appropriate, sector-specific action against sexual harassment. Collaboration with bodies such as Acas, the EHRC and employer bodies will help to raise awareness of appropriate workplace behaviours and individual rights. The government’s committment to making EHRC a ‘prescribed person’ so that protected whistleblowing disclosures can be made to them, and they may even think about extending it to the police and also industry regulators in sexual harassment cases.
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