The government has published its response to its consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, which closed in October 2019. When parliamentary time allows, the government will legislate to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and introduce explicit protections for harassment from third parties such as customers and clients.
- The purpose of the government’s consultation was to explore the following areas:
- the evidence for the introduction of a new duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimization in the workplace
- how best to strengthen and clarify the laws in relation to harassment by third parties, e.g. from customers and clients
- whether interns are adequately protected by the Equality Act 2010 (Equality Act) and the evidence for extending protection to volunteers
- the views of stakeholders on extending the limitation periods under the Equality Act from the current period of 3 months
- A summary of the government’s response to the consultation is as follows:
- The government will introduce a duty requiring employers to prevent sexual harassment as it believes that this will encourage employers to take proactive steps to make the workplace safer for everyone. The response does not set out any details of the proposed duty but the government considers that it will closely follow the formulation suggested in the consultation, with employers being required to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment, and for an incident to have taken place before an individual can bring a claim. A new statutory code of practice will be issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which will be accompanied by guidance to help employers check they are taking the most effective action.
- The government will also introduce explicit protections from third-party harassment although it has not yet decided whether it will only apply in situations where harassment has already occurred. It has indicated, however, that it intends to replicate the defense for employers who have taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment that is currently in the Equality Act.
- Legislative changes for the new duty to prevent sexual harassment and protections from third-party harassment will be enacted when parliamentary time allows.
- The government considers that interns (those working to gain job experience) are already protected by the Equality Act therefore no additional protections are proposed. In respect of volunteers (individuals who give up their time to support their community or an issue they care about), the government considers that extending protection to them would lead to ‘undesirable consequences’ as it could create a disproportionate level of liability and difficulties for the organization, which could outweigh the service they provide. However, the government expects that responsible employers will have implemented effective anti-harassment policies that cover all staff, rather than just employees, as a matter of good practice.
- Finally, the government will look closely at extending the time limit for bringing discrimination and harassment claims under the Equality Act from 3 to 6 months. The government is conscious that the courts and tribunals are facing additional pressures as a result of the pandemic so would like to see existing levels of service restored before introducing additional loading. If the extension to the limitation period goes ahead, it would apply to all claims under the Equality Act.
- Employers should watch out for publication of further details and developments on the legislative changes.
For advice or to discuss what this means for you and your business, please contact your usual Baker McKenzie contact.