Employers must take action on "normalisation" of sexual harassment

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​Corrosive working cultures have normalised sexual harassment, state new recommendations from the EHRC

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called on the government to scrap the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in accusations of sexual harassment. The body argued that the agreements “sweep sexual harassment under the carpet” and should only be used at the victim’s request.

The spotlight was recently shone on NDAs in relation to an undercover Financial Times investigation into a Presidents Club dinner, where such agreements were used to prevent hostesses speaking out about inappropriate treatment.

The EHRC's Turning Tables: ending sexual harassment at work report also calls for the time limit to bring a claim of sexual harassment to tribunal to be extended to six months, reflecting the time taken by many individuals to raise complaints.

The EHRC asked members of the public to share their experiences of workplace sexual harassment and wrote to leading employers, including FTSE 100 chairs and magic circle law firms, to alert them to their legal responsibilities regarding the safety of employees.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said: “We set out to discover how sexual harassment at work is dealt with by employers and how it is experienced by individuals. What we found was truly shocking. There is a lack of consistent, effective action being taken by employers, and people’s careers and mental and physical health have been damaged as a result.

“Corrosive cultures have silenced individuals and sexual harassment has been normalised," she added. "We underestimate the extent and we are complacent as to impact. We need urgent action to turn the tables in British workplaces; shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it. That’s what our recommendations set out to do.

The EHRC’s report also recommended a new positive legal duty on employers to take effective steps to prevent harassment or victimisation in the workplace, producing a statutory code of practice with a possible 25% uplift in compensation when the code is breached. It also recommended strengthening protection for those harassed by customers and clients, and developing targeted training for managers and staff.

The government should also collect data from individuals across England, Scotland and Wales every three years to determine the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment and produce an action plan to address the problems revealed, the report stated.

“It cannot be right that millions of people go to work fearing what might have happened by the time they come home," added Hilsenrath. "Employers need to take responsibility for eliminating sexual harassment from every British workplace.”

Chloé Chambraud, gender equality director at Business in the Community (BITC), added that other factors such as precarious working conditions, disability, sexuality and ethnicity contribute to a woman’s risk of harassment.

She cited BITC research that found that while 12% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, the figure rose to 19% for bisexual women, 16% for women with disabilities, and 15% for women from mixed or multiple ethnic backgrounds.

“Employers need to monitor sexual harassment claims by gender, ethnicity and other characteristics, as well as monitor employee assistance programme data," she said.

"Conducting regular surveys of employees’ views on the effectiveness of their sexual harassment policies, and carrying out in-depth analysis of data that explores issues including levels of seniority, working patterns, types of bullying and harassment and tracking of data over time will also provide the building blocks to make real change,” she added.

The EHRC report follows a recent review by the Fawcett Society which called for the reintroduction of protections against third-party harassment, updated statutory sex discrimination laws, and agreed that the time limit to bring a sexual harassment claim to tribunal should be extended to six months.

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