Employers risk penalties if they fail to prevent unwanted behaviour in the workplace, writes KAREN HARVIE
Almost unnoticed amid the focus on international conflicts and the cost of living, has been the passing of new legislation that will have major implications for both employees and employers. The Workers Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 comes into effect next October and employers will need to be aware of pre-emptive measures required to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
There is no doubt that over the last few years much progress has been made to improve conditions for workers. However, there is clear evidence that more needs to be done, with a study carried out by Randstad revealing that 72% of surveyed women had experienced, or witnessed, harassing behaviour from male colleagues. The #MeToo movement certainly had a role to play to bringing this issue to the fore, raising awareness that workplace sexual harassment is a real problem.
The Act amends the Equality Act 2010 to impose a new duty on employers to take “reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment of their employees in the course of their employment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will produce a statutory code of practice to provide guidance for employers to confirm the sort of steps they need to take to meet the new duty.
Whilst the guidance has not yet been introduced to confirm what is meant by “reasonable steps”, we’d expect that this will include the following:
- create a specific sexual harassment policy
- make sure all employment policies are consistent in implementing a zero tolerance of sexual
- provide training to employees
- spread awareness around the workplace that sexual harassment will not be tolerated
- offer support to staff members involved in sexual harassment
- take steps to deal effectively with complaints
Undoubtedly this is a very important step in the right direction for workers but it is incredibly important that all employers, large and small, familiarise themselves with what is to come and make the necessary preparations.
Employment is already a complex area of law, and a failure to adhere to the rules, from recruitment to redundancy, can have extremely damaging consequences for a business or indeed any employer.
Getting it wrong is extremely serious and can have both reputational and financial ramifications. In this case, the Act gives employment tribunals the power to uplift compensation by 25% if an employer is found to have breached their duty to prevent sexual harassment.
As we approach the end of the year it is a good time to reflect on the months that have passed but the start of the year is also a good time to start planning.
Although the new legislation will not take effect until October next year, getting ahead of the game could save any employer time and money, as well as avoiding any possible enforcement action and the EHRC knocking at your door.
Reviewing existing employment policies now to ensure they are fit for purpose and align with the new legislation by the time it is in force would be a highly recommended New Year resolution.
Karen Harvie is a senior associate in employment Law at Aberdein Considine