Ending sexual harassment at work

August 7th, 2019

MeToo sexual harassment

Shining a spotlight

The #MeToo movement has put sexual harassment in the spotlight, initially driven by a surge of allegations against high profile and celebrity figures and the subsequent injunctions that aim to keep allegations out of the public eye.  However, the movement has grown beyond Hollywood, found widespread support and has made an impact worldwide.

In the words of the 5th report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, ‘the stories sparked a mass movement of women from all walks of life and in many different fields of work sharing their own experiences of being sexually harassed in the workplace or elsewhere’.  The same report has this to say about the extent of the problem reported by media surveys:

‘The impression such surveys give of a widespread problem across many sectors is borne out by evidence we have received about, for example, the entertainment industry, teaching, journalism, hospitality, retail, healthcare, the music industry and the international charity sector. Throughout the world of work, in spite of the law, sexual harassment is an everyday, common occurrence.’

A worldwide issue

Yet even this does not quite capture the scale.  A search of related news stories just this week reveals that the conservation movement in the US, the scientific community in Mexico and the garment supply industry in India are experiencing their respective ‘#MeToo moments’.  This is no short-lived social media trend and it was no surprise that the Government swiftly published its response to the Women and Equalities Select Committee report.

The Government has agreed with the Committee that a new statutory Code of Practice should be introduced, to be developed by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The law currently in place surrounding sexual harassment actually appears reasonably strong – particularly following the 2010 Equality Act.  However, employees do not necessarily know their rights and therefore the introduction of clear reporting mechanisms are key.  Employees require an open and transparent workplace culture in order to feel confident in reporting experiences.

Implementing a solution

A way to implement this is to ensure that employers put preventative measures in place.  The EHRC argued that a mandatory duty should be placed on employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation in the workplace.  They recommend targeted training for managers and senior staff, the development of anonymous reporting mechanisms for larger employers, and the publication of companies’ sexual harassment policies.

The aim of the statutory Code will be to make it clear to employers what actions they must take to fulfil their legal responsibilities, while allowing employers sufficient flexibility to adapt it to their own circumstances.  The Government will review whether or not a breach of the Code would enable tribunals to increase compensation by up to 25%, which is the case for a breach of the ACAS code on discipline and grievances.

The way forward

The #MeToo movement has been crucial to bringing this topic into the light, raising awareness of how widespread and normalised sexual harassment in the workplace had become.  The EHRC has taken up the baton and produced recommendations for tackling the problem.  As an employer, it’s a good idea to be proactive on the issue.  You could train staff on how to support those who’ve experienced sexual harassment, extend the time limits for bringing claims, and use non-disclosure agreements or confidentiality clauses only when the absolutely necessary.

With over 27 years of providing international HR support to our clients, Briars is able to support businesses to ensure that they comply with the new Code.  If you would like more information you can Contact Briars Group

Kate Jolly

Kate co-founded Briars in 1991 with Andrew Brierley. She specialised in tax law and today continues to advise clients on international operations, particularly land, expand and exit! In her spare time Kate is a Past Master of the City of London Guild of Entrepreneurs and a Director of CCARHT (Cambridge Centre for Applied Research into Human Trafficking).