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Safety in the workplace to include higher protection from sexual harassment

Across the UK, safety in the workplace is currently a paramount consideration as we negotiate our way ‘back to work’, whether that involves a return to the workplace or normalising flexible working. Alongside this, the Government has been consulting on other safety measures; specifically whether more can be done to protect our workforce from the still prevalent matter of sexual harassment.

Legislation has been in force for many years to protect workers from such unwanted conduct at work. Sadly, the issue appears to remain at large, with more than half of participants in the government’s recent consultation (both male and female) stating that they had experienced this type of harassment in their workplace. As for other protected characteristics, societal and cultural change may still be required before we see that seismic shift in behaviours, but the UK Government seems keen to ensure that, at the very least, the legal framework is as effective as possible.

The consultation has looked particularly at:

  • imposing mandatory requirements to ensure employers have adequate protection in place;
  • enabling enforcement of sanctions even where no act of harassment has yet been complained of;
  • requiring adequate protection for employees from third parties (e.g. from others whom they come across in their work who are not their colleagues); and
  • widening the protection to include interns and volunteers.

In addition, we could see an extension in the time limit for harassment claims (and possibly all Equality Act claims) from three to six months, it being recognised that the trauma suffered by those harassed could easily impede them promptly submitting a Tribunal claim.

But until the legislation becomes clearer, what does this mean for employers?

Whilst changes have not yet been agreed, a shift towards prevention rather than cure seems inevitable. We cannot recommend highly enough that your policies are up to date as well as fit for your particular purpose.  It will be necessary to consider the scope of your policies and to include non-paid workers. Induction training and regular updates can improve the culture of your workplace if not assist as a small contribution towards societal progress. In practice, we recommend you consider carefully all possible situations from where your workers could be exposed to harassment and look at whether any steps should be taken to mitigate your risk. Are you clear what relevant conduct could intimidate, degrade, humiliate or offend?

If time limits are to be extended, it may also become necessary to retain related documentation for a longer period of time.

And if you fail to take reasonable steps? The Tribunals have recently determined that, in worst case scenarios, life-long loss of wages can be taken into consideration when determining an appropriate compensatory award. It is clear, therefore, that harassment in the workplace is certainly not an issue that can be side-lined. Having said that, progress can only be a good thing. If you can act in good time to consider what steps are appropriate in your workplace and to instigate necessary improvements, you should be well placed and ready when any changes take legal effect.

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