Another week has passed…specifically the first week of ‘freedom’. How has everyone found it? For me personally, I haven’t really done that much different to what I would have done before, so I guess for me nothing seems all that different yet. What was interesting for me to see, is that when I have popped to the shops, the majority of people are still wearing masks which shows that people very much still want to take the cautious approach. I think the main point to take from it, is although many restrictions have been lifted, make sure you take everything at your own pace and do what makes you feel comfortable.
So, today’s blog is an interesting one…
We will all strongly remember the #MeToo movement, a movement that prompted various investigations, reports and initiatives addressing the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. This included activity by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as well as the Women and Equalities Select Committee. It was back in 2019 when the Equalities Office published a consultation paper on sexual harassment in the workplace which explored the existing protections for workers and how these could potentially be strengthened.
Well, on the 21st July, the government finally published its response to that consultation. I have noted the key points to take away from the response below:
• New duty on employers – the government will introduce a duty requiring employers to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment. The government believes that the implementation of this duty will encourage employers to take proactive steps to make the workplace safer for everyone.
• Third-party harassment – explicit protections from third-party harassment (for example, harassment by a customer or a supplier) will also be introduced. Note – employers will have a defence to claims of this type if they are able to demonstrate that they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent harassment occurring.
• Volunteers and interns – explicit protections will not be extended to volunteers and interns. In most cases, interns are covered by the existing legislation and the government considers that extending protection to volunteers would create a disproportionate level of liability and difficulty for organisations.
• Time limits – the government will look closely at the option of extending the time limits for bringing Equality Act based claims to an employment tribunal from 3 to 6 months. If an extension is introduced, it is likely that this would be across all Equality Act claims. This would avoid the risk of confusion which could result if the limits were increased only for claims based on specific grounds.
• EHRC strategic enforcement – the government is to encourage further EHRC strategic enforcement action so that enforcement will not rely solely on individuals pursuing employment tribunal claims.
• Statutory code of practise – the EHRC will be supported to develop a statutory code of practice to complement its 2020 technical guidance.
• Practical guidance – the government will produce its own guidance for employers which will outline practical steps that organisations can take to improve their workplace practices and culture which impact on sexual harassment at work.
• The legislative changes required to introduce these measures will be introduced “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
So, what do employers need to take away from this?
Many employers will be already taking steps to improve their equality and diversity strategies in light of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. The government’s response, as above, confirms that this is the right approach to be having and that workplace equality issues need to remain top priority. The consultation also emphasises the need for cultural and societal change – with this, employers will play an important role by working to improve workplace practises and culture.
The slight negative about the consultation is that, unfortunately, the commitment by the government as to when these pledges will take effect is very vague. It therefore seems unlikely that we will see a swift change in the law in these areas anytime soon. Despite this, we recommend that you start to consider as soon as possible how you can incorporate the new requirements of taking all ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent workplace harassment and how you can manage the risks of third-party harassment into your equality strategy. By getting these plans in motion now, it means that when the further guidance is published from the ERHC and the government, you will be ready and organised to make any tweaks needed.
Should you not be sure of where to start in implementing such changes or just seek further guidance then please do get in touch with a member of the team.