Will employers be required to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

Thursday 26th August 2021

On 21 July 2021, the government published its response to a consultation into sexual harassment in the workplace. The  response highlights that as people return to work after extended periods of working from home, there is an opportunity to focus on ensuring a safe working environment. One of the areas the consultation explored was whether the government should introduce a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation in the workplace.

Though harassment in the workplace has been prohibited for decades, 54% of the 4,215 respondents to the survey said they had experienced harassment at work. Current legislation requires employers to ‘take all reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment. The government’s proposal could hold employers to account for failing to take these steps before an incident occurs, although the consultation did not conclude what the penalty would be. Respondents called for more clarity around what is meant by ‘employers must take all reasonable steps’ in order to ensure consistent expectations are being placed upon employers.

The government has stated its intention to bring forward new legislation in this area as soon as parliamentary time allows it. This would see a greater requirement on employers to not only deal with harassment appropriately, but to also actively take steps to prevent harassment. The consultation response also promises accessible employer guidance to outline practical steps they can carry out in order to take the most effective action. By increasing employer awareness, the government hopes to also make employees more aware of what to expect from their employer. This will help employees when considering taking legal action in respect of harassment as they will be more aware of the preventative action that is required by their employer.

The proposed legislation is unlikely to be enacted for some time, but employers are still required in the meantime to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment in the workplace. This could be in the form of staff training, or raising awareness through other means. Proactive consideration of whether your current sexual harassment policy needs updating and whether you could take any additional steps to ensure you are fostering a safe working environment for your employees will no doubt help to mitigate the current risk.

If you would like to discuss this further, then please contact one of our employment experts below. To view the full August Employment Law Update, click here: