5 things the Government must do to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace

It's time to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, say MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee

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.

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.

We, the Women and Equalities Committee, believe that its time to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, as currently, there's little incentive for employers and regulators to take robust action to tackle and prevent unwanted sexual behaviours in the workplace.

The effects of sexual harassment can be traumatic and devastating, and 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.

Here are five things the Government must do:

The Government should place a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation in the workplace.

Breach of the duty should be an unlawful act enforceable by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and carrying substantial financial penalties.

The duty should be supported by a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment and harassment at work which sets out what employers need to do to meet the duty.

The Government should require all regulators to put in place an action plan setting out what they will do to ensure that the employers they regulate take action to protect workers from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Regulators who do not take steps to address sexual harassment in their sectors are failing in their Public Sector Equality Duty.

The Government should introduce a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment in support of the mandatory duty.

This code would specify the steps that employers should take to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, and which can be considered in evidence when determining whether the duty has been breached.

The code of practice to support the mandatory duty should set out good practice guidance on matters including:

• reporting systems and procedures and what employers should provide as a minimum, including guidance on anonymous reporting and any relevant data protection issues that arise;

• support for victims, including access to specialist support and steps that should be taken to prevent victimisation of complainants;

• how to investigate and record complaints, including a presumption that all complaints should be investigated unless there is a compelling reason not to;

• how to identify when sexual harassment allegations may include criminal offences and how to conduct any investigation in a manner which does not prejudice any potential police investigation and criminal prosecution;

• training, induction, risk assessments and other policies and practices; and

• alternative dispute resolution including mediation, and risk assessments.

The Government should legislate to require the use of standard, approved confidentiality clauses.

These should include clear, plain English wording setting out the meaning, effect and limits of confidentiality clauses.

These should also a clear explanation of what disclosures are protected under whistleblowing laws and cannot be prohibited or restricted.

The use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) must be better controlled and regulated to ensure that they are not used unethically in cases where sexual harassment is alleged.

It is vital that employees have access to information about the responsible and legal use of confidentiality clauses and that lawyers are held to account for using or attempting to use such clauses in an unethical way.

The Government should commission large-scale surveys at least every three years to determine the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The findings of each edition of the survey should be accompanied by an evaluation of measures taken in the preceding period to tackle sexual harassment, and an action plan responding to the findings.

It is crucial, if we are to gauge the effect of actions being taken now to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace, that robust and comparable data is collected at regular intervals.

We are giving these recommendations to the Government as the Women and Equalities Committee, 11 MPs from different political parties.

The Government has two months to respond to our report. To read more depth and detail about our recommendations, read our report on Sexual harassment in the workplace [PDF] or see more on our website.

If you're interested in the work of our committee, find out more about our other inquiries.