25 JULY 2018

The Government, regulators and employers are failing in their responsibilities to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, says the Women and Equalities Committee in a major report published today, following a wide-ranging six-month inquiry. You can read Fawcett's submission to the inquiry here.

The Committee finds that sexual harassment at work is widespread and commonplace but there has been a failure to tackle unlawful behaviours, despite the Government's obligations under international law. Employers and regulators have ignored their responsibilities for too long, says the Committee, and often legal protections are not available to workers in practice.

Fawcett Society Chief Executive Sam Smethers said: 

“We are delighted to see the Committee agree with Fawcett that we need a new statutory duty on employers to prevent harassment. The only way we can change workplace culture is to make it a proactive requirement. We have to move from treating this issue as a problem for the individual woman to deal with, to one that the organisation owns.

"We have to go from a culture of secrecy, to one of transparency. Women need confidence to report and employers need to own what happens in their own organisation.”

The report calls on Government to focus on five priorities to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda for employers:

  • 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; and ensure that interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections and remedies as their workplace colleagues;
  • Require regulators to take a more active role, starting by setting out the actions they will take to help tackle this problem, including the enforcement action they will take; and by making it clear to those they regulate that sexual harassment is a breach of professional standards and a reportable offence with sanctions;
  • Make enforcement processes work better for employees by setting out in the statutory code of practice what employers should do to tackle sexual harassment; and by reducing barriers to taking forward tribunal cases, including by extending the time limit for submitting a claim, introducing punitive damages for employers and reducing cost risks for employees;
  • Clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), including by requiring the use of standard, plain English confidentiality clauses, which set out the meaning, limit and effect of the clause, and by making it an offence to misuse such clauses; and extending whistleblowing protections so that disclosures to the police and regulators such as the EHRC are protected;
  • Collect robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller MP, said:

"It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces. Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long.

"There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action. In contrast, there is considerable focus on other corporate governance issues like protecting people's personal data and preventing money laundering, with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities. It's time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment.

"The effects of sexual harassment can be traumatic and devastating, and this is reinforced by the personal evidence we received. The lack of appropriate support for victims within the workplace cannot continue. The burden falls unacceptably on the individual to hold harassers and employers to account when they will already hesitate to do so due to fear of victimisation. The current system is inadequate: the tribunal system must provide an effective remedy for employees.

"NDAs have their place in settling complaints, but they must not be used to prevent or dissuade victims from reporting incidents as is clearly the case now. We expect proper regulation of NDAs and that any unethical practices lead to strong and appropriate sanctions."

Our consultation briefing for this report highlights how there is a need to tackle harassment at its root via Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) which addresses gender norms and stereotypes. There is also a need to place duties on private companies to take action to prevent discrimination and harassment, including publishing an action plan, and the need to improve access to justice for victims of sexual harassment.

Our Sex Discrimination Law Review also calls for a number of specific changes to the legal system. These include strengthening the laws on sexual harassment at work to protect women from harassment by third parties. Read the full report here.