The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to Chairs of the FTSE 100 saying it will take legal action where there is evidence of systemic failing in preventing, or dealing with, sexual harassment.

In the wake of the Hollywood and Westminster sexual harassment scandals, and the #MeToo campaign, the Commission has written to the Chairs of the FTSE 100 and other leading employers to remind them of their legal responsibility for the safety and dignity of their employees in ordinary workplaces across the country.

It has asked them to supply evidence of what safeguards they have in place to prevent sexual harassment, what steps they have taken to ensure that all employees are able to report instances of harassment without fear of retribution, and how they plan to prevent harassment in the future.

The letter explains that, where the Commission discovers evidence of systemic failings, it will consider exercising its enforcement powers, this could include undertaking investigations into organisations which it suspects may be failing to take reasonable steps to protect employees.

The Commission’s Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said:

“Sexual harassment is rife across all of our industries. We accept it far too easily, in terms of the culture we live in. Accountability lies with leadership. It is not enough to report a nil return. We need to take responsibility to ensure that no woman will ever be intimidated from reporting, be challenged by the difficulty of doing so or frightened of the implications for her career.

“Everyone is entitled to a workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination, and until we achieve that goal, we will see inequality in pay and opportunity, and a waste of some of the brightest talent owned by half the human race. We want to find out what is working and what the barriers are and identify the leaders who are making a difference.”

Jemima Olchawski, Head of Policy and Insight at the Fawcett Society, said:

“No one should have to experience the humiliation and intimidation of sexual harassment. We all have a responsibility to take action to prevent and challenge these behaviours. Employers must ensure they are doing all they can to protect the women who work for them and to create a positive working culture. As a society we’ve turned a blind eye for too long, enough is enough and now is the time to act.”

A deadline to respond to the letter has been set for 19 January 2018. The Commission has also produced legal guidance to help businesses understand the law better and will ask people who’ve experienced sexual harassment to submit their thoughts on how best to deal with it in the workplace via online evidence gathering. Drawing on practical experiences will help to develop solutions and potential improvements, rooted in real people’s views, and make sure that the voices of individuals which have driven the visibility of this issue are heard.

Sexual harassment occurs when someone engages in unwanted behaviour which is of a sexual nature and which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Following the launch of the employer guidance, enei chief executive Denise Keating commented:

“The EHRC’s guidance is a timely reminder as we head into Christmas party season of employer’s responsibilities. Whilst it is to all of our shames that people still need to be reminded about what is acceptable in the workplace, the horror stories frequently being revealed in the media demonstrate that many of those who should know better are exhibiting unacceptable behaviours.

“Employers must ensure that they have robust reporting and management procedures that prevent sexual harassment from being swept under the carpet. Whether committed by employees, clients or customers, the onus is always on the employer to protect staff from sexual harassment, and we have seen that Employment Tribunals are more than happy to impose punitive awards on employers who neglect their duty of care.”