All employers owe a duty of care to their employees to protect them from sexual harassment in the workplace. Whilst most employers implement policies and procedures for addressing sexual harassment that has occurred in the workplace, whether from customers or colleagues, there is often no clear guidance on preventing such sexual harassment happening in the first place. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has collaborated with UKHospitality to publish a checklist and action plan for employers to use to help both prevent and address sexual harassment at work within the hospitality industry. However, although the action plan was initially developed for the hospitality industry, the EHRC make clear that it can be adapted by employers in other industries for use in their workplaces and the action plan contains useful points for employers to consider when doing so.
The publication may be seen as partial recognition of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Violence and Harassment, which was ratified by the UK government in March 2022. The Convention requires the government to ensure there are positive obligations on employers to take steps to prevent and eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work.
A report published by the EHRC in 2018 noted that some employers held the belief that such experiences were a “normal” part of the working environment in places where alcohol is consumed. As a result, those members of staff experiencing such sexual harassment are often left without appropriate support from their managers.
What do the checklist and action plan require employers to do?
The checklist and action plan encourage employers to review their existing policies and procedures on sexual harassment in the workplace and to check whether they should be updated. In particular, they also encourage employers to have conversations with their staff (including senior leadership) to gain insight into what they think could be done to prevent sexual harassment, as well as where practices could be improved. The checklist and action plan also provide a practical method of monitoring any steps being taken, or not being taken, to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
The checklist is broken into three areas:
- Changing the working environment – such as ensuring the safety of staff not only during work but at work related social events and often post-shift, ensuring staff have more than one person to report concerns to, asking staff what makes them feel vulnerable at work and preventing abuse of power of senior staff towards junior staff;
- Working practices – such as ensuring a clear method of reporting sexual harassment, having a policy in place for both harassment by clients or customers and providing training to staff on intervening if they see sexual harassment taking place; and
- Communicating with staff – such as reminding staff of sexual harassment policies, ensuring that they understand what sexual harassment is, displaying posters emphasising that a zero tolerance approach will be taken to sexual harassment, creating an atmosphere in which staff feel safe speaking up and if they have any concerns and acting on those concerns.
The checklist also includes a key indicating at what point certain actions should be taken, for example before, at the start, or at the end of a shift. The EHRC has made the guidance clear and simple to implement, meaning it should be easy for employers to adopt and adhere to it. The checklist encourages employers to think about actions they have taken to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, with a simple checkbox to be ticked if the employer has carried out the appropriate step. The action plan highlights steps that employers should take to make the checklist part of their working practices. The EHRC have also included a monitoring log with a checklist to record use of the checklist. The document encourages employers to review their implementation of the action plan every quarter and reflect on whether any adjustments must be made in order to make the workplace safer for their staff.
What does this mean for employers?
With the launch of the action plan, UKHospitality, which is the leading hospitality industry body have agreed there should be a strict, zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.
However the checklist and action plan should act as a reminder for all employers of the duty they owe to their workforce not only to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace if it occurs, but also, more fundamentally, to take positive steps to prevent it happening.
The checklist and action plan can act as valuable resources for employers, providing a step-by-step procedure, that can be followed and implemented at minimal cost. It includes actions that can be taken to raise awareness of situations where sexual harassment might occur and measures that can be put in place for minimising risk and ensuring that the workforce are aware of the employers policies and how they can raise complaints of sexual harassment safely.
We expect that similar guidance may be introduced for other industries, and this latest development is a good opportunity for all employers to review their working practices, policies and procedures to see if they can do more to prevent sexual harassment occurring in the working environment.