The Worker Protection Bill (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) has passed the second reading and is now at the committee stage. The purpose of the bill is to hold employers liable for any harassment employees face by third parties such as customers. This is especially concerning sexual harassment cases and will force employers to take reasonable measures.
Currently, employers can be held liable if an employee faces discrimination, harassment or any kind of victimisation but only if the employer has not taken reasonable steps to prevent it. In this case, “reasonable steps” can include training, workshops, policies etc that educate the workforce. When it comes to third-party harassment, employers can only be held liable if they choose not to intervene.
Worker Protection Bill – What Happens Next?
With the bill passing the second reading, it is now one step closer to becoming a law. If the bill does come into force, one of the first changes to happen will be a possible lift in compensation for sexual harassment cases. Employment Tribunals will have the discretion to increase compensation by 25%, in cases where the employer has not done their duty to prevent the harassment.
In case of third-party harassment, employers will be held liable even if it is a first-time incident If the bill comes into force. The only way employers can shed liability for the incident is by proving that they had taken reasonable steps to prevent third-party harassment. In such cases, “reasonable steps” is open to the tribunal’s interpretation, but it will be expected that the employers take complaints by employees seriously and communicate the anti-harassment policies to the third party.
Building Pressure on Employers
Provisions on employer liability when it comes to harassment/discrimination/victimisation cases already exist. However, legal experts believe that the worker protection bill will only add more pressure on employers and expose them to legal costs even if they have taken some reasonable steps.
In April 2022, the Equality and Human Rights Commission teamed up with UK Hospitality to create a new checklist that will aid employers and reduce harassment in the workplace. During their survey and research, they found that in the hospitality industry, what could be seen as harassment was seen as “banter” or considered normal (especially under the influence of alcohol).
While the proposed rules as well as the ECHR framework do allow employers to ensure that no one is harassed on the job, it still puts a bit of pressure should a one-off incident happen. The potential enforcement of the new rules will push employers to run a tight ship and update their policies.
The bill has also faced some pushback from the public. Toby Young of the Free Speech Union said in an interview that they are persuading the government to “press pause” on the bill. He expressed that it was “absurd” to have an employer be liable for a conversation that an employee overhears. This would probably push businesses like pubs and restaurants to put up “no banter” signs.
However, these claims were cleared in the latest reading. Employers will not be liable for conversations the employees were not participating in, i.e., if they overhear something upsetting, they cannot sue the employer. MP Wera Hobhouse also clarified that employers would not be asked to take drastic steps like shut down conversations or employ “banter bouncers”.