The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 has introduced a new duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees during their employment.

Crucially, employers will now have a duty to work preventatively to create a safe and inclusive environment – and not simply take reactive measures.

While the Act takes effect on 26 October 2024, employers need to be primed to take action now, rather than delaying any preparation.

This article outlines what the Act means for your organisation and provides suggested strategies to adopt to ensure your employees feel safe and protected, and that sexual harassment is not allowed to thrive.

CURRENT LEGISLATION

Sexual harassment is already unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. It happens when a person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

Determining this depends on the victim’s perspective. Therefore, sexual harassment can be unlawful, irrespective of the intent. People have different reactions to sexual conduct, so behaviours that appear harmless to one person, may be more serious and deeply offensive to another.

Examples of sexual harassment at work can include physical gestures like wolf-whistling and catcalling, non-consensual physical contact, telling offensive jokes and displaying or sharing pornographic images.

It is important to keep in mind that while sexual harassment predominantly affects women in the workplace, it can happen to men, women and people of any gender identity or sexual orientation. It can also be committed by anyone of the same sex, a different sex or anyone of any gender identity, emphasising the need for your policies and practices to address this inclusively.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT – A REALITY IN THE MODERN WORKPLACE

We all deserve to feel safe at work. Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the workplace is well-documented by women’s organisations, trade unions and the media. The Trades Union Congress found that three in five women (58%) – and almost two-thirds (62%) of women aged between 25 and 34 – have experienced sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse at work. The poll also found that the majority of victims are too afraid to report the incident for fear of not being believed, or that doing so will damage their working relationships and career prospects.

A recent survey by Unison of 12,243 NHS workers found that one in 10 (10%) reported experiences of sexual harassment. Three in five (61%) had been targeted by unwanted crude ‘banter’ or ‘jokes’ and half (50%) said they had been leered at or been targeted by suggestive gestures.

Although sexual harassment can happen at all levels throughout an organisation, there is evidence to suggest that it is usually ‘top-down’, originating from people in positions of authority, such as managers or leaders. This can be influenced by factors including gender inequality and power imbalances. According to research by the Trades Union Congress, nearly one in five women reported their harasser as either a direct manager or someone with direct authority over them. This should be an important factor when creating safe reporting mechanisms, with various options available to allow an individual to choose the method that feels comfortable for them.

EMPLOYER DUTY UNDER THE NEW ACT

The new legislation imposes new responsibilities on employers, including:

  • From October 2024, employers will need to comply with a new duty to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment of employees.
  • Under the Act, tribunals can increase compensation by up to 25% if an employer is found to be in breach of this duty.

STRATEGIES TO PREVENT SEXUAL HARASSMENT

The Equality and Human Rights Commission will update its existing Code of Practice and technical guidance on ‘Sexual harassment and harassment at work’ to reflect the mandatory duty of employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

Although it will help to provide further direction on compliance with the Act, it would be a mistake to wait for guidance. Some practical steps you can take now include:

  • Culture – Cultivate an inclusive culture with open communication where trust and transparency are prioritised and where people are not afraid to speak out or feel concerned about the repercussions.
  • Policy – Review and strengthen your anti-harassment, dignity at work or sexual harassment policy, ensuring it is accessible and emphasises prevention. It should include a statement that sexual harassment is unlawful, your organisation’s commitment and also outline examples of what constitutes unlawful conduct and what the procedure is to make a complaint.
  • Senior Leadership Commitment – Ensure the senior leadership team unequivocally supports a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, and lead by example so that all staff understand sexism and misogyny are unacceptable.
  • Clear Reporting Channels – Establish clear, diverse and accessible reporting procedures with multiple channels and options available to report sexual harassment. This empowers people to choose an approach that feels comfortable for them, preventing them from feeling isolated. Individuals should feel safe to speak out and be supported without fear of reprisal or damage to their careers. Every complaint should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.
  • Education – Refresh your training on sexual harassment in the workplace to reflect the changes, and deliver this regularly. Ensure your line managers are well-equipped and adequately prepared to listen and handle any complaints, and that all staff have the opportunity to upskill and understand how to become allies and prevent harmful behaviours and attitudes.
  • Support Network – Introduce the appropriate channels for speaking up or seeking help; whether through line management HR, Mental Health First Aiders or another external listening service such as the Tell Jane Anonymous Reporting Helpline.
  • Gain Insights – Undertake regular pulse surveys and polls to gather feedback to gain a true understanding of your work culture and use your Employee Resource Groups to raise awareness and ensure accountability.

For more practical tips to prevent harassment check out this Tell Jane blog.

 

The emphasis on prevention within the Worker Protection Act is crucial and encourages employers to take proactive steps rather than reactive ones. By acting now, you not only work towards preventing sexual harassment but also protect your employees and create a safe workspace, mitigate the risk of expensive compensation claims and uphold the integrity of your reputation.

Sexual harassment is a major contributor to a toxic workplace culture, and with the introduction of the Worker Protection Act, fulfilling your duty of care to your people is more vital than ever. Our Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace training will help you understand the impact of sexual harassment and take proactive steps to prevent it.

Tell Jane offers a wealth of practical tips, guidance and training on preventing sexual harassment at work. Explore our range of webinars, in-person or online facilitation and e-learning options by emailing hello@telljane.co.uk for more details.

If you would like to implement an anonymous reporting service in your organisation and send a clear message that incidents will be taken seriously, please get in touch. The Tell Jane anonymous reporting hotline provides a safe platform for employees to voice their concerns without fear or reprisal.

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