The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee has published its report on sexual harassment at work, including the following recommendations:

  • a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, supported by a statutory code of practice and enforcement powers for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission including financial penalties for breach
  • protection should be extended to interns and volunteers
  • the reintroduction of employer liability for third party harassment (including first occurrences), statutory questionnaires, and tribunal powers to make wider recommendations (for the benefit of persons other than the claimant)
  • punitive damages to be available, and costs should normally be paid by the losing employer in a sexual harassment case
  • 6 month time limits for harassment claims (currently 3 months), put on hold while internal procedures are completed
  • mandatory use of approved text for confidentiality clauses which should include clear, plain English wording setting out the meaning, effect and limits of confidentiality clauses, including a clear explanation of what disclosures are protected under whistleblowing laws and cannot be prohibited or restricted
  • it should be a criminal offence for an employer or their professional adviser to propose a confidentiality clause designed or intended to prevent or limit the making of a protected disclosure or disclosure of a criminal offence; use of provisions in confidentiality agreements that can reasonably be regarded as potentially unenforceable should be clearly understood to be a professional disciplinary offence for lawyers advising on such agreements
  • whistleblowing legislation should be amended to clearly cover disclosures of sexual harassment to the police and all regulators, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Health and Safety Executive, and to any court or tribunal
  • sexual harassment by regulated persons should clearly be a breach of regulatory requirements by the individual and their organisation; such breaches must be reported to the appropriate regulator and must be taken into account when considering the fitness and propriety (or equivalent) of regulated individuals and their employers.

The government has yet to respond to the recommendations. In the meantime, employers may want to review existing harassment policies and procedures to ensure they are effective and consider refresher training for staff.