Employers, regulators, and the U.K. government are not doing enough to tackle “widespread” instances of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a Members of Parliament committee.
A report released by Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee following a six-month inquiry has found that sexual harassment at work is commonplace because companies and regulators have ignored their responsibilities and failed to tackle unlawful behaviours, despite the government’s obligations under international law.
The committee also found that legal protections are often not available to workers, that problems are often dismissed lightly, and that complaints are either not investigated or are dropped by complainants over fear of reprisals.
A recent poll has found that 40 percent of women and 18 percent of men surveyed have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.
Stories concerning incidences of sexual harassment have gained some notoriety in the United Kingdom over the past year—not least from the House of Commons itself, with reports of MPs and staff engaging in bullying and harassment. A cross-party report released in February said urgent reform was needed to tackle a culture of harassment and bullying at Westminster, including a new complaints procedure and an investigation mechanism independent of parties.
“Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long. There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action.”
Maria Miller, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee
Elsewhere, reports emerged in January about a men-only black-tie charity event known as the “Presidents Club Charity Dinner” in which sexual harassment of hostesses by attendees was “at the least foreseeable, and possibly encouraged.”
The parliamentary report called on the U.K. government to focus on five priorities to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda for employers.
The committee wants to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment, supported by a statutory code of practice outlining the steps they can take to do this. These protections and legal remedies should also apply to interns and volunteers.
Regulators should also take a more active role to help stamp out the problem. MPs say they should spell out what enforcement action they will take and make it clear to those they regulate that sexual harassment is a breach of professional standards and a reportable offence with sanctions.
In particular, the committee says that the Health and Safety Executive “must take up its share of the burden of holding employers to account if they fail to take reasonable steps to protect workers from sexual harassment.” MPs say that this could include issuing guidance on the actions that employers could take, including undertaking specific risk assessments and investigating reports of particularly poor practice.
The committee wants to make enforcement processes work better for employees by setting out in the statutory code of practice what employers should do to tackle sexual harassment. It also wants to reduce barriers to taking forward tribunal cases, including by extending the time limit for submitting a claim, introducing punitive damages for employers and reducing cost risks for employees. To get a clearer idea of the scale of the problem—and whether employers are taking their responsibilities seriously—the committee also wants the government to collect robust data on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.
Recommendations in brief
The MPs report calls on the U.K. government to focus on five priorities to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda for employers:
Introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment;
Require regulators to take a more active role and provide sanctions;
Make enforcement processes work better for employees;
Clean up (though not get rid of) the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs); and
Collect more detailed data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.
Finally, MPs want to “clean up” the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which have been used—and abused—by employers to hush up incidences of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual discrimination. In the future, whenever NDAs are drawn up, the committee wants the government to require the use of standard, plain English confidentiality clauses, which set out the meaning, limit, and effect of the clause and make it an offence to misuse them. MPs also want to extend whistleblowing protections to cover NDAs so that disclosures to the police and regulators such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission are protected.
The committee heard evidence from experts on employment law and also from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s former assistant, Zelda Perkins, who described the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) she had to sign after leaving the film company Miramax as “morally lacking.” She told the committee: “There cannot be a legal document that protects criminal behaviour.”
“Government, regulators, and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long. There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action,” said Miller.
“The burden falls unacceptably on the individual to hold harassers and employers to account when they will already hesitate to do so due to fear of victimisation. The current system is inadequate: The tribunal system must provide an effective remedy for employees,” she added.