Sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread and commonplace. 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 in November 2017 found that 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. These behaviours are unlawful, but the Government, regulators and employers have failed to tackle them, despite their responsibilities to do so under UK and international law. As a result these legal protections are often not available to workers in practice. The #MeToo movement has put sexual harassment in the spotlight, but it is not a new phenomenon. Employers and regulators have ignored their responsibilities for too long.
It is time for the Government to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda. Currently, there is little incentive for employers and regulators to take robust action to tackle and prevent unwanted sexual behaviours in the workplace. In contrast, there is considerable focus on protecting people’s personal data and preventing money laundering, with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities in these areas. They should now put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment.
The effects of sexual harassment can be traumatic and devastating, but there is a lack of appropriate support for victims within the workplace. The lack of action by employers and regulators to tackle this problem means that the burden of holding harassers and employers to account rests heavily on the individual. However, many victims will not want to take forward a complaint for fear of victimisation, or because they cannot trust their employer to take robust action. For those who do take forward a grievance through their employer’s internal procedures or at employment tribunal, these systems do not work well enough. This may explain why the number of tribunal cases appears to be so low. The tribunal system must be an effective remedy for employees, and the threat of tribunal must be sufficient to ensure that employers have proper systems in place to tackle and prevent sexual harassment. Better data is also required so that the extent of harassment and effectiveness of remedies can be more easily measured.
Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are used unfairly by some employers and also some members of the legal profession to silence victims of sexual harassment. While NDAs have a place in settling complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, there is insufficient oversight and regulation of their use. It is unacceptable that some NDAs are used to prevent or dissuade victims from reporting sexual harassment to the police, regulators or other appropriate bodies or individuals. Those who use NDAs unethically in this way must face strong and appropriate sanctions.
We are calling on the Government to:
a)Put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, by
b)Require regulators to take a more active role, starting by
c)Make enforcement processes work better for employees by
d)Clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), including by
e)Collect robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.
Published: 25 July 2018