Experts have warned that despite the government’s recent announcement, more could and should be done to improve compliance with existing laws within the workplace.
Employers could be legally required to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment at work under the new government reforms.
In response to its consultation on workplace harassment, the government stated that it would introduce legislation to create this new “preventative duty” for employers as soon as parliamentary time permitted.
The government also intends to impose a duty to protect employees from harassment by third parties such as customers or clients and has stated that it will issue new guidance and a statutory code of practice for employers on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.
It is also considering increasing the time allowed to bring sexual harassment cases to an employment tribunal from three to six months, though no date has been set.
The package of measures, according to Liz Truss, minister for women and equalities, will not only protect women at work but will also “motivate employers to make improvements to workplace practices and culture.”
“We have listened carefully to the experiences shared as part of our consultation and are taking important steps to strengthen protections for women in the workplace.
“Every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence, in the workplace or anywhere else,” she added.
Unions and charities have praised the proposals. The Fawcett Society’s interim chief executive, Felicia Willow, said the charity was “pleased that the government has taken this issue seriously,” while Acas’s head of diversity and inclusion, Julie Dennis, said her organization “supported the government’s aim to tackle this unacceptable behavior.”
The announcements, according to Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, should make employers more aware of their responsibilities in preventing sexual harassment at work, particularly the creation of a statutory code of practice for employers and the legal duty to hold employers “more clearly liable for the sexual harassment of staff by customers, clients, and other third parties.”
However, Willmott cautioned that imposing a proactive duty on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment may not have the desired effect. “Employers are already required by law to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees by coworkers,” he said.
“Much more can be done to bridge the gap regarding the law and its effective implementation in the workplace. Improving employers’ compliance with their existing legal obligations under the Equality Act would make more sense than creating a new duty.”
The consultation, which took place in 2019, followed the 2018 Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) report on workplace sexual harassment.
It received responses from over 130 charities and employers, as well as over 4,000 members of the general public, more than half (54%) of whom said they had experienced sexual harassment at work.