In a new report, the Women and Equalities Committee has concluded that sexual harassment at work is widespread and commonplace, and that there has been a failure to tackle unlawful behaviours despite the government's obligations under international law.
It added that employers and regulators have ignored their responsibilities for too long, and that often legal protections are not available to workers in practice.
The report highlighted five priorities: a new duty on employers to prevent harassment, a requirement for regulators to take a more proactive role, making enforcement processes work better for employees, cleaning up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and collecting data on sexual harassment.
Roughly 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work, according to a poll by ComRes for the BBC.
Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee MP Maria Miller said that the high prevalence of sexual harassment at work is “utterly shameful”, and that current policies are proving ineffective.
“It is utterly shameful that in 2018 unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces. Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long,” she said.
“There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action. In contrast there is considerable focus on other corporate governance issues like protecting people's personal data and preventing money laundering; with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities. It's time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment."
Miller added that procedure surrounding sexual harassment places too much responsibility on the individual rather than the perpetrator. She also called for the close regulation of NDAs, which critics have said can be used by employers to ignore sexual harassment claims.
"The effects of sexual harassment can be traumatic and devastating, and this is reinforced by the personal evidence we received," said Miller. "The lack of appropriate support for victims within the workplace cannot continue. The burden falls unacceptably on the individual to hold harassers and employers to account when they will already hesitate to do so out of fear of victimisation. The current system is inadequate: the tribunal system must provide an effective remedy for employees.
“NDAs have their place in settling complaints, but they must not be used to prevent or dissuade victims from reporting incidents as is clearly the case now. We expect proper regulation of NDAs and that any unethical practices lead to strong and appropriate sanctions.”
Helen Murphie, a partner in Royds Withy King’s London employment and HR team, called for businesses to take action through carrying out tougher measures against perpetrators.
“Putting a positive obligation on employers to take a proactive approach to prevent sexual harassment, including complying with a statutory code of conduct, is one way to help tackle the problem," she said. "For example, most employers are aware of and comply with the Acas disciplinary and grievance code of practice. Compensation may be increased by up to 25% in the employment tribunal if an employer fails to comply with the code."
Murphie added that both employers and employees could benefit from learning about harassment and challenging outdated ideas.
“Many employers are aware of the law against sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation under the Equality Act 2010, but what is required is clear words and action from businesses to support their internal policies to help identify issues and change outdated and sexist ideas, views and behaviours," she said.
“Good employers are taking the challenge seriously and are taking steps to make a practical difference in the workplace by educating both managers and employees about sexual harassment and its various forms, conducting anonymous surveys to identify issues, encouraging reporting of concerns, and taking tough action against perpetrators."
The news follows the introduction last week of a new behaviour code for dealing with harassment at Westminster, stating that details into ongoing inquires would not be published. The move divided MPs and commentators; while some claimed that granting anonymity to accused perpetrators of harassment risked cover-up claims, others said it would give individuals the confidence to come forward.
The code was rolled out in response to a Newsnight investigation in March into bullying and sexual harassment at the House of Commons.
A survey of more than 1,300 parliamentary workers found that 19% had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the previous year, with twice as many complaints from women than men.