The country's largest companies, including magic circle law firms, have this week been contacted by The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to remind them of their legal responsibilities for the "safety and dignity" of their employees. Recipients of the letter from the EHRC have also been asked to supply evidence of what safeguards they have in place to prevent sexual harassment; what steps they have taken to ensure all employees are able to report instances of harassment without fear of retribution; and how they plan to prevent harassment in the future. The EHRC has requested responses by 19 January 2018.
The EHRC has also produced updated guidance on sexual harassment and the law for employers and has asked for evidence from people who have experienced, witnessed or supported others with workplace sexual harassment. This request for evidence is to help inform the EHRC and to assist them in developing practical solutions and potential improvements. Again the closing date for responses is 19 January 2018.
The EHRC guidance indicates that while there are no minimum requirements that employers can rely upon to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable steps to protect their employees, all employers are expected to have in place an anti-harassment policy that is communicated to workers and is effectively implemented, monitored and reviewed and an appropriate procedure for reporting harassment, protecting victims of harassment and taking action if harassment occurs. The EHRC also provides useful guidance on what an anti-harassment policy should contain and makes recommendations for dealing with any overlap between behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment and criminal offences, where employers need to tread extremely carefully.
Dealing with sexual harassment effectively is now high up on the agenda of many of the UK's most prominent employers. The biggest challenge for many employers will be changing embedded cultures where individuals feel it is difficult to speak out, particularly if concerns have not been taken seriously in the past. See our earlier post from Sophia Coles with tips on how to send out clear messages that concerns will be taken seriously.