A new Act on sexual harassment has received Royal Assent. The Act adds to the Equality Act 2010 and puts employers under a new duty to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees in the workplace. It will come in to force in October 2024.
This is an important change because of the duty it places on employers to act proactively and preventatively.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will be publishing a new statutory Code of Practice before the law changes, which should make it clearer what taking ‘reasonable steps’ will require. It is likely to include things like having an effective harassment policy, engaging with staff and identifying areas of risk (for example, lone working, power imbalances or customer-facing jobs) so those risks can be minimised.
What ‘reasonable steps’ means will depend on the specific circumstances of the employer, for example the size and sector, and other relevant facts. Not every step will be reasonable for every employer to take.
The new duty was originally intended to be more stringent and require employers to take ‘all reasonable steps’ (not just ‘reasonable steps’), but this met resistance as the Bill progressed through Parliament and was removed. Liability for third party harassment was also taken out.
Employers should plan to update their current policies and procedures to incorporate the new duty once the EHRC Code is published. Training will also need to be rolled out to managers on the steps they should be taking at a team level to comply with the new duty.
If employers fail to meet the new duty, Employment Tribunals will have the power to increase compensation for a sexual harassment claim by up to 25%. The EHRC can also take enforcement action.
The current law, under which employers are vicariously liable for sexual harassment committed by their employees during their employment, subject to the ‘reasonable steps’ defence, remains in place.
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