RR Forum 04.08.21

Wednesday 4 August saw the return of the Robinson Ralph Forum. This time we were discussing the recent government response to the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace.


Wednesday 4 August saw the return of the Robinson Ralph Forum. This time we were discussing the recent government response to the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The four main proposals from the government are:

The introduction of a mandatory duty to prevent sexual harassment;
The (re)introduction of protection for employees from third-party harassment;
Maintaining protection for volunteers and interns, whilst not imposing liability for informal volunteers (e.g. parents at a school fete); and
Extending time limits for sexual harassment claims.

There was broad support for the introduction of a mandatory duty. It was recognised that, for HR professionals, preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is an important and worthy cause. A legally imposed duty to prevent sexual harassment could in some organisations make it easier to persuade decision-makers that necessary and appropriate steps need to be taken.

However, there was also support for the proposal that an incident would need to have occurred before a claim could be brought.

Attendees recognised the risk of third party harassment and discussed steps they had taken in their businesses to deal with such issues, where they arose. However, there was caution around imposing liability on an employer for the actions of third parties, given that the employer has almost no control over those third parties.

Turning to protection for volunteers and interns, the feeling was that nobody should be excluded from the protection of the laws against sexual harassment.

There were mixed views around the proposal to extend the time limit to bring a claim (currently 3 months), bearing in mind that the government have said that, if it is extended, it will be for all Equality Act claims. There was recognition that in some circumstances, particularly discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity, the current time limit will often be insufficient. But there was also concern about the impact of memories fading or relevant witnesses leaving the business, which could adversely impact the ability to defend a claim.

Maybe it is in recognition of these conflicting considerations that the government has been less than committal on that issue in the consultation response, simply saying that they will “look closely at extending the time limit.”

That is even less committal than for the measures they do propose to bring in “when parliamentary time allows.” We will see when that is.

A separate idea mentioned in the consultation response was the creation of a naming and shaming mechanism, with comparisons made to the treatment of employers not paying the national minimum wage. However, the government felt that, instead of pushing employers to create a workplace where employees feel able to speak out about incidents and report them, this could instead encourage them to establish an environment of secrecy where harassment is not properly investigated, for fear that they will be publicly shamed.

It is clear that employers who take preventing sexual harassment seriously will be better-placed should these new provisions be brought in. In the meantime, it remains good practice to review policies and practices and take proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment, as well as taking complaints seriously, in order to provide a safe workplace for all and protect against claims.

If you have any questions in relation to this or need assistance with any employment related matter, you can contact David Sillitoe at david.sillitoe@robinsonralph.com

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