Employment news

Bill proposes new duty to prevent workplace sexual harassment

The government is supporting a private member’s bill that would see the return of employers’ liability for harassment of employees by third parties at work, as well as the introduction of a new duty to prevent workplace sexual harassment. The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill would amend the provisions in the 2010 Equality Act 2010 to better protect employees from workplace harassment and sexual harassment, shifting the focus from ‘redress’ to ‘prevention’.

Although introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, the bill received government support during its second reading in parliament, praising it as “an important step change in the protections available against workplace harassment”.

The most significant change proposed by the bill would be a new positive duty on employers to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent their employees experiencing workplace sexual harassment. An employment tribunal would also be given the power to apply an uplift of up to 25% on tribunal awards where the duty to prevent harassment had not been complied with. The bill would also make employers potentially liable for the harassment of staff by third parties, such as clients or customers, if they have failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent such harassment. These protections would apply to all acts of third party harassment in the workplace, for example racial as well as sexual harassment. The previous third party liability provisions in the Equality Act were repealed in 2013 as the then government claimed they imposed an unnecessary burden on businesses.

If the bill is passed in its current form, an employee would be able to bring a third party harassment claim against their employer after a single incident of harassment, lowering the pre-2013 threshold set by the ‘three strikes’ rule. Under that rule, employers needed to know of two previous incidents of third party harassment before they could be considered liable. Employers would once again be able to rely on the “all reasonable steps” defence.

A government consultation on strengthening protections against harassment in the workplace was published in 2019, with the government committing to action in its consultation response in July 2021. During the second reading of the Private Member’s Bill,  the government indicated it would respond to the 2019-2021 consultation “shortly”.