The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have released guidance for employers to take when they have to deal with harassment complaints in the office.
The EHRC is a non-departmental public body in England and Wales, established by the Equality Act 2006 with effect from 1 October 2007.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC has sent a letter to leading employers and industry groups, reminding executives their employees must come to work knowing they will be safe and protected from discrimination, victimisation and harassment of any kind.
The guidance details how employers have a legal responsibility on how they should prevent and respond to harassment and victimisation at work.
Alongside the new guidance the EHRC have also released seven tips on how to deal with harassment:
- Develop an effective anti-harassment policy
- Engage staff with regular one-to-ones and have an open door policy
- Assess and mitigate risks in the workplace
- Consider using a reporting system that allows workers to raise an issue anonymously or in name
- Train staff on what sexual harassment in the workplace looks like, what to do if workers experience it and how to handle complaints
- Act immediately when a harassment complaint is made
- Treat harassment by a third-party just as seriously as that by a colleague
Ms Hilsenrath 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.
Gemma McCall, CEO of Culture Shift, the start-up technology business that makes it easier for people to report issues of harassment and bullying at work safely and confidentially said:
One in four women have been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, yet from our own experience it is the lack of confidence that these issues will be taken seriously and treated sensitively that stops people from coming forward. Employers across every sector must do more to protect their people. No workplace is immune and while this latest guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is a welcome step forward and something we were proud to contribute to, in my eyes it could go further.
Employers must adopt a victim-first mentality to tackle harassment in the workplace, recognise the barriers to reporting and take all steps to remove them. Unless employers actively encourage reports, people will remain fearful of the repercussions. That will hold back real change.
With sex discrimination tribunal claims up 69 per cent year-on-year there is also not enough time to give the prospect of false reporting undue attention. Employers must take steps to put control into the hands of the victim by giving people the choice to remain anonymous. We know first-hand that when this is done it creates a culture of trust, and only then will business leaders be able to truly protect their people.
Kirsty Rogers, employment partner and lead partner of DWF Responsibility at DWF said:
The technical guidance on sexual harassment is a precursor to and the foundation of the anticipated statutory code of practice. The guidance sets out an invaluable step by step guidance for employers on their responsibility when dealing with harassment in the workplace. While it is not mandatory for employment tribunals to take it into account, it will most certainly be used in evidence as an indicator of good or bad practice. Organisations prioritising a positive workplace culture will inevitably stay one step ahead.
The guidance sets out the severe economic consequences for employers failing to address sexual harassment in the workplace, including low morale, poor workforce relations, high levels of stress, reduced staff engagement, higher turnover of workers, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and damage to reputation. Additionally, it directly identifies the sheer scale of the problem and why preventative action is necessary. Prevention is always better than cure and clarity on what is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace, as well as the consequences for not adhering to standards, is fundamental. The spotlight is firmly on sexual harassment – this is a business-critical issue.
The technical guidance allows us the opportunity to remind employers of the critical steps to take to help tackle harassment in the workplace. As expected, effective procedures, training and risk assessments are necessary. The guidance also focuses on an employer’s duty to proactively make sure they are aware of harassment taking place. It encourages employers to consider anonymous reporting and provide every opportunity for employees to disclose any issue easily. This is an indication of the direction of travel – employers must take responsibility and be approachable, open. Commitment to action has to be authentic.
You can read EHRC’s new guidance report here.
Darius is the editor of HRreview. He has previously worked as a finance reporter for the Daily Express. He studied his journalism masters at Press Association Training and graduated from the University of York with a degree in History.