New legislation passed to confront sexual harassment in the workplace

November 8th 2023

In February we wrote an article in anticipation of the new third-party harassment liability for employers contained in the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill – as it then was. Since then, the Bill has been watered down and it received Royal Assent on the 26th October 2023 and was passed as an Act of Parliament; here’s an update.

The background 

There already existed a  legislative framework establishing the rights of employees in the workplace in relation to sexual harassment. Despite this, incidents of sexual harassment still abound in the workplace, and often disproportionately affect already disadvantaged sections of the workforce. During parliamentary debate the bill’s sponsor MP Wera Hobhouse highlighted the fact that in nearly half of sexual harassment cases reported, the employer either took no action, minimised the incident, or placed the responsibility on the employee to avoid the harasser. 

The changes

The goal of the new law is to “shift…focus from redress to prevention” in relation to sexual harassment.. Although the addition of liability for third-party harassment on the part of employers was removed during its passage through the House of Lords and the duty on employers has been diluted, the new legislation will:

  • Place employers under an additional duty to ‘take reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment of employees in the course of their employment
  • Require an Employment Tribunal (ET) to consider whether to additionally penalise employers for failing to take reasonable preventative steps in cases where sexual harassment has been established. This penalty applies only where the ET has ordered compensation for sexual harassment which may be uplifted by up to 25%. 

The timeline

Although the Act became law on the 26th October 2023, the new provisions do not come into force until October 2024, giving time for employers to prepare. 

The verdict

An employer would be forgiven for asking the question “what do ‘reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees’ look like?” Unsurprisingly, it’s not entirely clear at this stage. Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission  and ACAS  are expected to update guidance in the coming months to assist employers with the requirements of the new duty which should be taken seriously. Employers would be well-advised to use the year’s grace period to review existing policies and training, and consider taking legal advice to ensure they are compliant come October 2024.

The contents of this article is a general guide only at the date of publication.  It is not comprehensive, and it does not constitute legal advice.  Specific legal advice should be sought in relation to the particular facts of a given situation.  

New Third Party Harassment Liability for Employers