Government to impose new prevention of sexual harassment duty on employers
The UK government has confirmed its plans to implement a package of measures which will impose a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, proclaiming it to be a “symbolic first step” to combat a broader problem in workplace culture.
The plans come as a result of the Government Equalities Office’s consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, which identified that, despite having been prohibited by law for decades, harassment in the workplace is a persistent problem. A link to the consultation paper can be accessed here.
Under the current law, employers can rely on a defence that they took all reasonable steps to avoid a case of harassment in the workplace. Such steps may include, for example, staff training, having robust policies in place, adequately dealing with staff grievances and taking disciplinary action where appropriate. The key difference under the new package is that employers will be required to take these steps.
It is important to note that this duty has yet to be formalised into statute and so the full details have not yet been confirmed, although it is expected that when the legislation is implemented, the government will increase the limitation period to bring a claim for harassment (and all other claims that can be brought under the Equality Act 2010) from three months to six months. The duty is to apply to conduct by other employees and third parties, including clients, suppliers and service providers. However, the protection resulting from the increased duty will only apply to employees and workers and not, for example, to interns and volunteers.
The proposed package of reformed / new legislation has been broadly welcomed by many, who view the proposals as necessary to increase the protections afforded to employees. Other proponents see the move as a positive step towards instigating a cultural shift away from merely reactive responses to sexual harassment and towards actively preventing such unwanted conduct. On the other hand, critics are questioning whether the changes will really be effective and whether a more efficient way to implement change would be to focus on enforcing the measures that are already available under the Equality Act 2010, rather than creating new measures.
Despite the varied responses to the proposals, the unanimous sentiment appears to be that there is an unnecessarily high level of harassment in the workplace. Whether or not the government’s response will be sufficient to tackle the problem remains to be seen.
This note reflects our opinion and views as of 11 August 2021 and is a general summary of the legal position in England and Wales. It does not constitute legal advice.