Posted by Gemma Ospedale, Partner
Contributing authors: Rachel Levine
Employers to be made liable in the event they fail to protect their staff from sexual harassment
Protection from sexual harassment has been included in the UK’s equalities law for several decades, yet unfortunately harassment in the workplace remains a significant issue. We welcome the government’s recent announcement, via its recently published consultation, that it is looking to widen and increase the protection afforded to people in the workplace against sexual harassment.
Currently, all employers have a duty to do all they reasonably can to protect staff from sexual harassment. This often involves developing effective policies, ensuring adequate and confidential reporting systems are in place to deal with allegations and training staff.
What is the government proposing?
The changes proposed by the government include the introduction of employer liability in the event that they fail to protect their staff from sexual harassment. The government hopes that this will encourage employers to take positive proactive steps to make their workplace safer.
Explicit protection from harassment by third parties is also proposed, and although this affects certain industries, such as hospitality, a lot more than others, it is vital that all companies take “all reasonable steps” to prevent it occurring.
Finally, and significantly for employers, the government is proposing to extend tribunal time limits for all Equality Act based claims from three to six months. This is in recognition that three months can be a short timeframe for someone who has been through a traumatic experience (which Equality Act claims often involve). The government also recognised that the way in which complaints and disputes are handled in workplaces will often take several weeks. The increased time limit enables internal processes to be concluded (and hopefully resolved) before the time limit for making a claim expires.
What do employers need to do now?
The proposed changes have been widely welcomed as going some way in increasing protection in the workplace; however any proposed legislative changes will need to go through parliament and it remains to be seen exactly what the impact of the proposals will be in real terms.
In the meantime, employers should ensure, not only in relation to sexual harassment but also regarding all Equality Act based claims, that risk assessments have been carried out, policies and procedures are up to date and maintained, appropriate equality, diversity and harassment training is provided and regularly refreshed, and that their procedures for dealing with allegations are robust.
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