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UK Government Proposes to Prevent Workplace Sexual Harassment

A woman's back is being touched by a man.

​The U.K. government introduced legislation in July 2021 for employers to take proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment on the job.

According to the Government Equalities Office—a branch of the U.K. government responsible for social equality—employers are now liable if they fail to provide a workplace free of harassment. Employers need to show they have current anti-harassment policies in place, along with up-to-date training for their employees, explained Nick Hurley, an attorney with Charles Russell Speechlys LLP in London.

He noted that other aspects of the legislation include:

  • Introducing protection for employees harassed by third parties, such as customers and clients, including protection from racial and sexual-orientation discrimination.
  • Possibly extending the time limit for bringing discrimination cases to the employment tribunal from three months to six months.
  • Supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission to set out steps employers should take to respond to sexual-harassment complaints.

"This is one of the first key statutory changes in the U.K. to happen since the #MeToo movement," Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at Rights of Women, a legal rights charity in London, tweeted on July 21. "It will empower survivors to expect more from their employers and will force employers to take more responsibility for violence against women happening on their watch."

Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss said the package of measures would not only protect women at work but also motivate employers to make improvements to workplace practices and culture.

The U.K. government said it will take some time to implement these measures, Hurley explained.

"Nothing is going to change overnight," he said. "However, it is clear that more will be expected of employers in preventing workplace harassment, with training and increasing awareness seen as vital tools to encourage widespread cultural change."

Improving employers' compliance with existing legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 would make more sense than creating new measures, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

"Much more can be done to bridge the gap regarding the law and its effective implementation in the workplace," said Ben Willmott, CIPD's head of public policy.

Online Sexual Harassment During COVID-19 Pandemic

The Trades Union Congress—a federation of trade unions in England and Wales—first reported in 2016 that more than half of women employees in the United Kingdom have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, like indecent or suggestive remarks, requests or demands for sexual favors, and inappropriate or unwanted touches.

Women across the U.K. have experienced an upsurge in online sexual harassment while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Rights of Women survey from January 2021, approximately 45 percent of women surveyed in England and Wales said they have been sexually harassed on online work platforms since March 2020.

"These statistics echo what women have been telling us already—sexual harassment at work happens online as well as in person," Syed said in a statement. "Women continue to suffer from sexual harassment despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Women working from home have seen their harassers take to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, social media, messages and phone calls to continue the torrent of abuse."

"Employers continue to undermine their responsibility to keep women safe from sexual harassment and harassers repeatedly evade justice," she added. "Until legislation and guidance reflect the lived realities of women, whether working from home or onsite, no space is safe from harassment and abuse for women at work."

SHRM Resource Hub Page
Workplace Harassment and Bullying

How HR Can Prevent Harassment

While waiting for new legislation to come into effect in the coming months, employers should refresh and review harassment policies and procedures, Hurley said.

Hurley added that employers and HR professionals can take the following actions to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place:

  • Carry out a risk assessment to determine the likelihood of sexual harassment. Employers might decide to not serve alcohol at work events. They could also keep an eye out for power imbalances between colleagues.
  • Create a culture of zero tolerance. Employers should make clear to all staff through internal communication channels that sexual harassment is unlawful.
  • Train staff on laws concerning sexual harassment, as well as what employees should do if they are victims, and how managers should handle sexual-harassment complaints.

"HR departments will need to ensure they have sufficient mechanisms in place for reporting instances of sexual harassment by adopting an open, inclusive and supportive culture," Hurley said. "Traditionally, staff might report harassment to their manager or HR. However, some employers may wish to go one step further and set up telephone helplines or use a third-party provider to gather these reports."

The latter approach might make the affected employee more comfortable with reporting about a sensitive topic, leading to more accurate monitoring of sexual-harassment cases in the workplace, he said.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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