The Equality and Human Rights Commission, with support from the government, is to develop a statutory code of practice to combat workplace sexual harassment. The government will not, however, be imposing new sanctions for non-compliance.
The aim is that evidence of code violations could be used in legal proceedings and that officials would review its use to ascertain whether further action was required. The government also pledged to work with regulators to ensure action is being taken, and carry out surveys on the frequency of sexual harassment at work.
Minister for women, Victoria Atkins said: “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.”
This is the long awaited response to the report of the Commons Woman and Equalities Committee, published in the summer. That report highlighted that notwithstanding the many improvements for women in the workplace, there was still a way to go. Their research showed that 40% of women said that they still experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and called for new legislation to prevent harassment by introducing a mandatory duty on employers to do so.
The newly proposed code of practice will provide several positives to help tackle such workplace issues. Employees already have various legislative protections including the Equality Act which deals with, among other things, discrimination. The code of practice makes recommendations including the better regulation of Non-Disclosure Agreements, the requirement for collection of data on the prevalence/ nature of workplace sexual harassment and the intention to work with acas and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as well as employers’ groups to raise awareness of the issues.
However, significantly it does not impose any new sanctions nor does it introduce any new legislation and critics have commented on this as being a missed opportunity to place a greater onus on employers to protect workers from harassment. Only time will tell if this is sufficient to tackle the issue once and for all.
Regardless of this, the code will be persuasive and Employers ignore it at their cost. They will need to ensure that they are familiar with it and must make their employees aware of it too. Once again there will be the need for robust policies together with a requirement that they are monitored and that training is provided.