Though a welcome update, critics are concerned that without concrete enforcement, employees will be left without the protection they need.
One of the intentions made in its response to a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace is to make employers legally liable if staff are harassed by third parties, such as customers and clients.
Darren Hockley, managing director at training provider DeltaNet International, told HR magazine: “This will truly support female employees to feel safer in the workplace, but it is also a victory for those too scared for speaking out over the years and had their jobs and careers impacted by this.
“Recent research by TUC revealed that one in eight disabled women have left their jobs because of sexual harassment. This is not just a win for women in office-based roles, but also those women in customer-facing environments, like shops, high-street banks and supermarkets.
“These women now know that their employers should legally support them in acting against sexual harassment.”
Sexual harassment in the workplace:
Kirsty Churm, senior associate at Kingsley Napley, told HR magazine the issue of third-party harassment has been “a battleground” for years.
“The Equality Act 2010 introduced the concept, but it was then repealed in 2013,” Churm explained.
Though she welcomed a renewed commitment to legislate on protection from third parties is encouraging, Churm worried about what it would look like.
She added: “The response does not confirm what this protection will look like, how this will differ from the previous failed attempt to introduce such statutory protection, or what sanctions will be imposed in the event employers fail to comply.”
Churm added that responsible employers will already be taking all reasonable steps to protect employees, and a “preventative duty” as described may have minimal impact.
“These new measures therefore need to target employers that are not currently focusing on these issues,” she said, adding that harsher enforcement is needed.
“We have seen time and again that holding employers (sometimes publicly) accountable and ensuring robust enforcement action is taken in the event of breach is key to effecting change. This includes financial, reputational and legal risk. It is not yet clear how, if at all, this will change.”
The government also confirmed an intention to create a statutory code of practice for employers, outlining the steps they need to take to prevent and deal with sexual harassment, in its response.
Though welcoming of the response overall, the CIPD warned that a new duty on employers risks “using legislation as a blunt tool” to stamp out harassment.
As the Equality Act already obligates employers to protect employees from harassment, CIPD head of public policy Ben Willmott said improving compliance with the existing act would make more sense, and criticised government of a missed opportunity to increase EHRC capability to investigate complaints.
“Much more can be done to bridge the gap regarding the law and its effective implementation in the workplace,” he said.
Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust, called on government to be clearer in its commitment to holding employers accountable for workplace sexual harassment. She also advised employers to be stricter around their enforcement.
Speaking to HR magazine, Wyporska said: "We need zero tolerance policies and practice from employers. No employee should face the reporting of sexual harassment alone and should be fully supported by their employer.”
While waiting for legislative change, Churm added that organisations should encourage a “speak up” culture among their employees.
“The single greatest measure an employer can take to provide better protection for employees against sexual harassment is to prioritise creating a workplace culture that encourages and supports complainants raising issues,” she said.
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