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Sexual harassment: New duty to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment

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By Zoë Wigan, Hilary Larter and Ceri Fuller

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Published 10 November 2023

Overview

Legislation imposing a new obligation on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees is to come into force in 2024.

The facts

Having made its way through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill has now received Royal Assent. This means that the Equality Act will be amended to change and expand the sexual harassment provisions contained within it, so that:

  • A new, positive duty will be imposed on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees; and
  • Employment tribunals will have the power to uplift sexual harassment compensation by up to 25% where an employer is found to have breached this duty.

A new statutory code on sexual harassment will be published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and this is what tribunals will need to take into account in deciding whether there has been a breach. The EHRC is the body who have power to act against employers they consider have failed to implement the Equality Act by entering into a "section 23" agreement, which is a legally binding agreement to bring about change. The new code may well be based on the technical guidance the EHRC issued in January 2020 which can be found here.

The Bill had originally included provisions protecting employees from third party harassment.  However, these provisions were rejected by the House of Lords in July.

The new legislation is expected to come into force in October 2024.

What does this mean for employers?

Employers should review existing anti-harassment policies and procedures to ensure that they are robust and that they specifically cover sexual harassment, possibly in a separate policy. Employers also need to let their workforce know that they take a zero tolerance approach to harassment and will take disciplinary action in relation to  such behaviour. Employers should also make sure that their anti-harassment training is up to date.  If training is a tick box exercise or stale, employers may not be able to show that they have complied with the new duty, and will be at risk of increased compensation should a claim by brought by the victim of harassment. 

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