Preventing and responding to sexual harassment at work: a guide for employers

15 January 2020

New guidance to support employers in protecting their workforces.

As the UK Equality Act enters its second decade, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published new guidance to support employers in protecting their workforces.

Drawing from a wide range of experiences of harassment and expertise from employees, employers, HR and legal specialists, the new guidance explains the different forms that harassment and victimisation can take under the Equality Act. It reiterates that certain types of behaviour such as physical gestures, jokes or pranks, banter and physical behaviour towards a person or their property, can amount to harassment or sexual harassment even if that is not how it was intended by the perpetrator.

The new guidance also explains employers’ legal responsibilities and the practical steps they should take to prevent and respond to harassment and victimisation at work. It also provides advice for workers to help them understand the law and their employer’s obligations to prevent harassment and victimisation, or to respond to their complaint.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

It is time for all employers to step up action against misconduct and protect their staff from harassment. It’s been two years since #MeToo forced sexual harassment to the top of the agenda. We’ve seen some employers wake up, take this on board and start to make the differences which will transform working environments and boost the economy through empowering people to reach their potential. But we need others to follow suit. The issue is not going to go away and if we are going to create working environments where no one is ever made to feel unsafe or threatened, then we need a dramatic shift in workplace cultures.

No form of harassment can ever be justified and for too long the onus has been on the victim to challenge inappropriate treatment. By setting out legal requirements and providing practical examples on preventing and responding to harassment, we hope that our guidance will shift the burden back on to employers.’

The guidance also provides employment tribunals and courts with clear direction on the law and best practice steps that employers could take to prevent and deal with harassment and victimisation. It is expected to become a statutory code of practice in due course.

Alongside the technical guidance, the EHRC has published seven steps every employer should consider taking to ensure they are doing all they can to prevent and deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

These are:

  1. Develop an effective anti-harassment policy
  2. Engage staff with regular one-to-ones and have an open-door policy
  3. Assess and mitigate risks in the workplace
  4. Consider using a reporting system that allows workers to raise an issue anonymously or in name
  5. Train staff on what sexual harassment in the workplace looks like, what to do if workers experience it and how to handle complaints
  6. Act immediately when a harassment complaint is made
  7. Treat harassment by a third-party just as seriously as that by a colleague
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