by Melanie Field
Published: 16 Oct 2022
Five years ago, the #MeToo movement sent shockwaves across the world, exposing the destructive and pervasive problem of sexual harassment at work.
Women bravely spoke out about their experiences of harassment and abuse, leading to commitments from employers and governments to stamp out this abhorrent behaviour.
But what progress has been made in Britain over the past five years?
In 2017, the EHRC launched a call for evidence from those who had experienced sexual harassment at work.
Unsurprisingly, the results painted a dark picture of victims whose careers and health had been damaged by corrosive workplace cultures. Toxic cultures that silenced individuals, normalised harassment and enforced barriers to reporting it.
Shamefully, employers were often placing responsibility on women to avoid their harasser, rather than taking steps to protect victims.
We published a report making a number of recommendations to tackle the problem, including:
- Introducing a preventative mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment
- Reinstating a provision in the Equality Act to ensure protection against harassment by third parties, such as customers or clients
As a result of our report and an inquiry conduct by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, the UK Government recognised the gravity of the situation and launched a consultation on sexual harassment at work, to ensure the law and protections against it were fit for purpose.
The Government later announced that it would bring forward a mandatory duty requiring employers to prevent sexual harassment and reinstate protections making employers liable for failing to prevent third party harassment.
Wera Hobhouse MP is taking forward a Private Members’ Bill to introduce these protections, which has Government support. If it passes, it will lead to a profound shift in responsibility from the individual to the employer.
We’re briefing parliamentarians to support this Bill and are hopeful that it will become law. Employers already need to take reasonable steps to prevent their employees harassing colleagues, but a clear duty to prevent sexual harassment will have a significant impact in helping to eliminate it.
As Britain’s equality regulator it’s our job to explain and clarify the law. We recognise that employers need to be equipped with advice and tools to be able to tackle workplace harassment effectively. As part of this, we published guidance offering legal explanations and practical examples of how to tackle harassment at work. Should the Bill pass, we will also produce a Code of Practice for employers.
Not stopping there, we also found that sexual harassment was a particular problem within the hospitality industry. One venue even had a policy to allow staff to hide in the back from stalkers. Working alongside UKHospitality, we produced a practical checklist and action plan for employers to take direct action and stop harassment against staff.
We stand ready to use our legal powers when necessary and have already entered legally binding agreements with a number of organisations, including Sainsbury’s and Highways England, to monitor steps they were taking to prevent harassment in the workplace.
These agreements allow us to monitor businesses and organisations through an action plan, and ensure they are taking steps to improve policies and practices.
Positive steps continue, but there is always more to be done.
People deserve to work in safe environments and we cannot be complacent. We continue to see reports of sexual harassment occurring across different sectors.
We need to see concerted efforts on the part of Government, Parliament and employers to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.
The EHRC will continue to push for change and support the development of better practice, so that no one else has to suffer this abuse in the future.