A 2018 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that, out of 750 responses to their survey on sexual harassment, almost all who claimed to be harassed identified as women. The report also shockingly revealed that senior colleagues were the most common perpetrators of harassment. In addition, a quarter of the survey responses indicated that customers or clients of the organisation were also common perpetrators.
On asking how many reported these incidents, half of them stated they were reluctant to report them. One of the victims was told she could not be helped “unless she is being stalked”; only then could she ask the workplace for help. In a nutshell, the respondents who didn’t want to report said they were either scared to go against the workplace, didn’t want to be victimised or had no faith in the procedures.
Hence, keeping in mind that workplace harassment is a common occurrence, new legislation is being passed to tackle the problem. A brief explanation of the new “Workers Protection Bill” is that it makes the employer liable for harassment, including third-party harassment.
In 2019, the UK Government released a response to the increasing workplace harassment issues (this was updated in 2021). They recognised the need for a strong legal framework that can protect people in a modern workplace. One important point was that since workplaces were closed during the pandemic, their response will explore ways to reduce workplace harassment, even when working from home.
In response to their consultation and questionnaire, they found that majority were in favour of new rules to prevent harassment. However, their findings suggested that reformations are only done after an incident has occurred. Hence, the UK Government stated they will make harassment prevention a duty among employers. This was done to encourage them into taking more steps to make workplaces safe.
Another issue raised was whether employers can be held liable for third-party harassment such as from clients. Previously, the company could not have been held liable for the harassment, unless it has happened more than once. In response, the UK Government wanted to introduce workplace protection when possible.
Worker Protection Bill
Following the response by the Government, a new bill has been introduced. As expected, the proposed legislation imposes a duty on all employers to take responsibility for harassment and avoid it by “taking reasonable steps”. The recent introduction of the bill makes the Government’s previous, and vague, response on the matter clearer.
This duty of prevention is enforced by the EHRC which means there are consequences if the duty is not followed. The bill mentions that should an employer not comply, the company can face an investigation.
Regarding third-party harassment, the bill makes the eligibility for being liable somewhat simpler. The “three incidents” rules have now been scrapped; instead, organisations will become liable from the first incident itself. However, it is important to note that they will only be liable if the organisation has failed to take reasonable and preventative measures.
To make it more inclusive, this protection against harassment by third parties includes not just sexual but also racial harassment.
What To Expect
Should the bill be passed as a law it will help many workers, especially, those in more customer-facing roles. As mentioned in the EHRC report, clients and customers were some of the common perpetrators and this bill can allow more protection even if the organisation fail to do it themselves.
In addition, this bill can put some serious pressure on smaller organisations that tend to overlook these policies. Unchecked harassment is not just a big organisation phenomenon, and the lack of attention to these policies will make every type of organisation answerable to the EHRC.
The one thing that remains to be seen is if it passes and becomes an actual law. Unfortunately, given the present scenario, these much-needed changes will not be enforced anytime before 2024.