How should employers handle allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace
The Women and Equalities Committee Report makes proposals which will impact employers’ handling of sexual harassment allegations in the workplace, Lindsays’ Partner and Head of Employment Ben Doherty comments on the recommendations
Allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace have come under the media spotlight recently. A survey in 2017 reported that 40% of women and 18% of men had experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour at work. Following a six month inquiry into the issue, the Women and Equalities Committee has published a report which calls for the government to put the subject of sexual harassment at the top of the agenda.
One of the recommendations in the report is that sexual harassment is treated along the same lines as data protection and money laundering with significant sanctions for breaches imposed on employers.
The report identifies how difficult it can be for employees to raise concerns about sexual harassment and recommends taking the burden of enforcement away from individuals. It recommends subjecting employers to a duty to take reasonable action to protect workers from harassment and victimisation. Furthermore the report suggests implementing a statutory code of practice setting out steps that employers can take in order to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Currently only employees and workers are protected but the report also recommends extending the existing protection to include volunteers and interns.
The number of successful employment tribunal claims for sexual harassment is surprisingly low. The report recommends ways of reducing barriers to claims including by extending the time limit for bringing sexual harassment claims to six months and pausing time for internal processes and investigations.
The report also recommends introducing a presumption that the employer will pay the employee’s legal costs if the employer loses a discrimination case involving sexual harassment.
Non-disclosure agreements can be used to silence victims or prevent them from reporting incidents of sexual harassment. The report recommends regulating the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases and limiting the extent to which an employee can be required to keep allegations confidential. Standard, approved confidentiality clauses may also be introduced which would include a clear explanation of their effects and limits.
Ben Doherty commented on the recommendations, saying:
“How the government will implement these recommendations is not yet clear, however, the report suggests that the current legislation is not adequate.
“In the meantime, employers should ensure that they have equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies in place. These policies should be followed and any improvements that can be made to the procedure should be identified. Any allegations of sexual harassment should be taken seriously.”