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Report published by The Women and Equalities Select Committee labels sexual behaviors in the workplace ‘shameful'

Employment Law & HR

The Women and Equalities Select Committee have published a report on sexual harassment in the workplace stating that it is 'shameful that unwanted sexual behaviours such as sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in workplaces'.

A BBC survey from November 2017 found that:

- 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace;

-Women aged 18-34 are most at risk of sexual harassment at work, with 43% having experienced it.

Commenting on these figures, the Commission states that whilst these behaviours are unlawful, the Government, regulators and employers have failed to tackle them. Although they have a responsibility to provide protections, this report found that, in practice, they are often not available to workers.

The report also found that the lack of action taken by employers often means that it is left to victims to come forward. However, a fear of victimisation and that their employer will fail to take robust actions means that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace often will not say anything at all.  A survey conducted by the EHRC shows that one in six employers had done nothing to ensure that people who complained of sexual harassment were not victimised. Evidence suggests that employers are particularly bad at handling cases of third party harassment where staff are often told to 'just deal with it'.

Commenting on an employer's role in preventing sexual harassment, the report states that the legal and moral cases for preventing this should be sufficiently compelling for employers. However, it states that there is also a clear business case; a failure to deal with allegations creates a poor culture, resulting in employees being dissatisfied with work, having a low opinion of managers, taking time off from work or leaving altogether.

At present, there is little incentive for employers and regulators to take robust action to tackle unwanted sexual behaviours in the workplace, in contrast to protecting personal data and preventing money laundering. This report makes a number of recommendations in relation to employers including imposing a mandatory duty on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, enforceable by the EHRC and punishable by fines.

Evidence suggests that reporting procedures within organisations remain inadequate; often sexual harassment is part of a sentence on a page of a policy and employees must report through generic grievance procedure. The report also recommends that a mandatory duty be supported by a code of practice for employers which sets out good practice guidance on matter such as reporting systems, support for victims, how to investigate complaints and how to identify when allegations may include criminal offences.

Although there is no detailed quantitative data on the topic, the report states that many incidents of sexual harassment do not make it to tribunal. Reasons for this include the fact the individual may still be in the workplace and are worried about the impact on their careers, the legal costs of bringing a case and the difficulty claimants may have speaking about the harassment. However, as the #MeToo campaign continues to grow, it seems that more and more people are willing to speak up about their experiences. If employers' policies fail to catch up with the increased openness of victims, they could face a growing number of tribunal claims, especially now that tribunal fees are no longer in place.

Conversely, as employers try to take a harsh stance on sexual harassment in the workplace by dismissing the harasser, they might face an increased number of unfair dismissal claims. Indeed, employers might be at risk of unfair dismissals where they have failed to adequately set out the standard of behaviour expected before taking action.

In reflection of this predicted trend, Law At Work is hosting a series of Mock Tribunal events on this very subject. These will be hosted in Inverness, Glasgow, London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh and will give attendees an insight into how an Employment Tribunal runs. This is a must attend event for line managers of any level seeking to improve their knowledge of the tribunal process. Further details of the event and the dates can be found here.

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