The Women and Equalities Committee (the "Committee") launched an enquiry into “sexual harassment in the workplace” and how misconduct could be tackled more effectively on the back of a one off House of Commons session at the end of January this year.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been a hot topic over the last few months with widespread reports of women’s (and men’s) experiences of sexual harassment at work. The enquiry on sexual harassment in the workplace was launched in February 2018 and sat alongside another enquiry on “sexual harassment of women and girls in public places”. 

Yesterday’s report is a timely response on the back of allegations starting in October 2017 in the entertainment industry which resulted in the #MeToo movement being placed firmly at the top of news agendas all over the world.

Strangely sexual harassment at work is far from a new problem, despite its current high profile it seems to have left many employers completely flat footed. Why is that? Is it because employers don't really understand the definition of sexual harassment, or is it because employees don't feel confident enough to step to their employer to raise this?

The Equality Act 2010 is the most important law on sexual harassment in the workplace and defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct on a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violated dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” Wide ranges of behaviour can therefore come under the sexual harassment definition for example, sexual jokes or comments, remarks about somebody’s body, sexual advances, groping or even cat calls and wolf whistling.

Looking at this area of enquiry the Committee conducted seven oral evidence sessions with witnesses including Employment Lawyers, Unions, Researchers, Employers and Regulators. The Committee also received written evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals who provided numerous examples of experiences and views that they had around this topic.

The recommendations and conclusions reached by the Committee cover 11 points and include for example the following;-

(a) a mandatory duty on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, enforceable by the EHRC and punishable by fines;

(b) extending sexual harassment protection to interns and volunteers; and

(c) enabling tribunals to award punitive damages in sexual harassment cases creating a presumption of costs, so that employers will ordinarily have to pay the employee’s legal costs if it loses a sexual harassment case.

It will be interesting to see what, if any of the recommendations the Government actually implements.