Government to develop code of practice to tackle sexual harassment in workplace

Ministers are to develop a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment in the workplace, to combat the “failure” of many employers to take their preventative responsibilities seriously.

The Government will work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to develop a code that makes it clear “what actions an employer must take to fulfil their legal responsibilities”.

It follows recommendations by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee to place a “mandatory duty” on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation in the workplace, supported by rules on what employers need to do to meet the duty.

A Government response to the suggestions stated: “The Government shares the committee’s concerns that evidence suggests many employers are currently failing their employees in their responsibility to prevent sexual harassment, and in the systems they have in place for dealing with it when it does occur.

“We therefore agree the proposal for the development of a new statutory code of practice on sexual harassment and will work with the EHRC to develop a code that make it clear what actions an employer must take to fulfil their legal responsibilities.

“This statutory code of practice will be developed by the EHRC, with support from Government, under the powers conferred on it by the Equality Act 2006.”

John Bercow bullying allegations
John Bercow bullying allegations

The Government also agreed with the committee that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) require better regulation and pledged to consult on how to ensure explanations to workers are clear.

The commitments were welcomed by committee chairwoman Maria Miller, who said she was “pleased that ministers have woken up and have agreed to our recommendation of a statutory code of practice”.

But she added: “They have missed the opportunity to place a greater onus on employers to protect workers from harassment and to increase sanctions for poor practice. Just keeping an eye on how employment tribunals respond to the new code is inadequate.

“The Government is placing a lot of emphasis on awareness-raising among employers and employees as a means of tackling sexual harassment. We welcome the actions it will take to raise awareness of rights and responsibilities, but it also needs to do more to show that it is taking these issues seriously.

“Employers need to know that they face severe penalties if they don’t do enough to protect their staff from harassment and victimisation.

“We welcome the Government’s consultation on how best to clean up the use of NDAs, and we will keep a close eye on this issue in our new inquiry into the use of NDAs in discrimination cases, which will report in the spring.”

Mrs Miller also criticised the Government over the time taken to report back, saying: “Forty percent of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. With this unacceptable statistic in mind, the Government should not have taken five months to respond.”

Minister for Women Victoria Atkins said: “Sexual harassment at work is illegal, but sadly that disgusting behaviour is something that many women still experience today.

“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. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive at the EHRC, said: “This is a critical first step towards realising everyone’s right to a safe working environment. Every single one of us deserves an employer who doesn’t dismiss or trivialise sexual harassment, and who supports us to realise our full potential.

“We are pleased that the Government recognises the need to put the onus on employers to stop sexual harassment from happening and to ensure they respond robustly when it does.

“Our new statutory code of practice will set out clear advice to help employers do this. However, to achieve real change, there also needs to be a mandatory enforceable duty on employers to protect their staff from harassment and victimisation.”

Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smethers said: “The steps Government is taking are welcome but they fall short. Failing to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment is a missed opportunity and leaves women dealing with the problem alone. A new statutory duty is very much needed. We need to get on with it.

“This is undoubtedly a widespread problem which requires a rebalancing of responsibility and power between the individual and their employer. Bringing back Section 40 of the Equality Act would be a clear and easy way of dealing with third-party harassment. But again Government fails to act.”