What Does the Worker Protection Bill 2023 Mean for Employers?

Posted: 12 Mar, 2024.

The introduction of the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 signifies a notable shift in UK workplace discrimination laws. This new legislation marks one of the most significant updates in more than a decade.

The Act was passed in October 2023 and will come into effect in October 2024. From this point, employers will be required to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent employee sexual harassment, and tribunals will be able to boost compensation by up to 25% if this duty is breached.

However, it is important to note that employees cannot make a standalone claim for a breach of the preventative duty. This means they cannot solely file a lawsuit based on the employer’s failure to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

Instead, a claim for this must be pursued in conjunction with an existing claim, meaning that the employee needs to have already experienced and reported an incident of sexual harassment to claim that the employer failed in their preventative duty.

What Impact Does the Worker Protection Bill Have on Employers?

The bill introduces several changes to the existing Equality Act 2010 that will impact employers:

Increased Need for Compliance

Employers now have a legal duty to take “reasonable steps” to proactively prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. This “preventative duty” shifts beyond reacting to complaints and requires employers to take steps to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.

While the specifics of “reasonable steps” can vary based on factors like company size and work environment, the responsibility is on employers to actively assess risks and implement necessary measures. These steps could include establishing clear anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures, providing training and awareness programs for employees at all levels, and implementing an effective system for investigating and addressing reported incidents.

Financial Implications

Now, employers failing to meet the preventative duty can trigger enforcement action from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, potentially leading to fines. This adds a layer of financial risk for employers who are not compliant.

Employees experiencing sexual harassment and successfully proving the employer’s lack of reasonable steps to prevent it, can also be awarded increased compensation of 25% through employment tribunals. This means employers could face significant financial costs not only from potential fines but also from potential lawsuits if they fail to take adequate preventive measures.

Potential Benefits

Although presenting challenges, the bill may also lead to positive outcomes for employers. By creating a safer and more positive workplace culture, they can improve employee morale and productivity, potentially reducing staff turnover and associated costs. Additionally, addressing and preventing harassment can help mitigate reputational risk and enhance the organisation’s image as a responsible employer.

Changes to the Bill from the House of Lords

Since the bill’s first introduction in June 2022, it has undergone several changes and revisions. Most notably, in the original draft of the bill, it was stated that employers would be required to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to protect employees from harassment. This obligation has been reduced so that employers are now only required to take ‘reasonable steps’.

The original draft also sought protection against third parties, such as customers, but this has now been removed meaning that an employer’s duty towards third party harassment will not change. This was due to fears about jeopardising free speech, as well as concerns about the cost to businesses and excessive state intervention. 

However, employers should be aware that although the act has removed the requirement to prevent third-party harassment, they may still be liable if they fail to adequately deal with complaints from employees relating to third-party harassment. 

Why is the Worker Protection Bill Being Introduced?

Several factors triggered the introduction of the Worker Protection Bill, but a key catalyst was the 2018 report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) which highlighted the widespread extent of sexual harassment experienced by workers in the UK, particularly women.

This report revealed that 40% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in their careers. This ranged from displays of pornographic material and unwelcome jokes or comments of a sexual nature to serious sexual assaults. The report also referenced studies by other groups, such as a ComRes poll for BBC Radio 5 Live which found that 1 in 10 of the women who had been harassed said they had been sexually assaulted.

This data, alongside campaigns by organisations such as the Fawcett Society and the This Is Not Working Alliance pushing for legislative reforms, prompted the UK government to conduct its own consultation, revealing that 54% of respondents had experienced workplace harassment.

This data combined with personal testimonies highlighted by the global #MeToo movement, brought widespread public attention to the issue of sexual misconduct and harassment, including in workplaces, and raised attention of the need for stronger legislative measures.

How Can Employers Prepare for the Worker Protection Bill?

Although there is currently no set date, the act is expected to come into place in October 2024. Here are some ways that organisations can prepare:

Review Policies

Review and update existing anti-harassment policies to ensure they are clear, comprehensive and up to date. They should outline unacceptable behaviour, how employees can report concerns and the consequences for violating this policy. If you don’t already have an anti-harassment policy in place, one should be implemented.

This policy should also be communicated with all employees and saved in an easily accessible location for staff, such as on a HR portal or document management software.

Provide Training

Conduct mandatory training sessions for all employees, including managers and leadership, on recognising and preventing sexual harassment. This should cover topics like identifying different forms of harassment, bystander intervention and conflict management.

Use these sessions to create an open discussion about harassment, allowing employees to ask questions and encouraging them to come to you with suggestions for improvement. You should also consider conducting refresher training regularly to ensure ongoing awareness and understanding.

Handle Complaints Seriously

Establish a clear and confidential system for employees to report any incidents of sexual harassment. This could include multiple reporting options, such as online reporting tools, or speaking to a dedicated member of management.

Take all complaints seriously and ensure every issue raised is investigated fairly, impartially, and promptly, following established procedures. It is crucial to maintain confidentiality throughout the entire process, protecting the identities of both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.

Encourage Open Communication

Create a culture of open communication where employees feel safe to speak up about inappropriate behaviour without fear of retaliation. This starts with leadership demonstrating a commitment to creating a safe and respectful work environment by actively promoting the new policy and procedures.

To maintain this culture, regularly review and assess the effectiveness of implemented measures and make adjustments as needed. In doing this, it can be useful to encourage feedback from employees in all departments and at all levels to gain a true understanding of your workplace culture in all areas.

Identify Risk Areas

Identify areas within your workplace that pose a higher risk of harassment and update your risk assessment accordingly. This involves examining various aspects like the existing culture, work practices and conditions. Also, consider how risks might be increased for those who interact with the public and anyone who works alone.

By assessing these elements and pinpointing potential vulnerabilities, you can prioritise areas for improvement and put preventative measures in place.

Implement a Personal Safety Service

Implementing a personal safety service or mobile app is a simple way for organisations to protect employees and improve their peace of mind particularly in the face of harassment concerns. With personal safety apps and devices, employees can raise an alarm and access 24/7 emergency support if they feel unsafe.

All alarms raised via Peoplesafe are connected to our control centre where expertly trained Controllers are on hand to triage the call and pass information on to the emergency services if required. While alarms can be raised discreetly, devices can also be worn overtly to act as a deterrent, helping to prevent incidents of harassment and abuse. Additionally, audio recordings captured during these incidents can serve as valuable evidence in investigations should they be required, promoting accountability and supporting a fair resolution.

For employees experiencing threats outside of work, such as being harassed on their commute, employers can extend their duty of care by supplying a professional personal safety service, such as the Peoplesafe SOS app. For the over 33% of women who have been sexually harassed on public transport, this is particularly valuable when paired with Travelsafe.

This is a safety solution designed to protect individuals while they’re on the move, offering features such as real-time location tracking, welfare checks, and access to the Peoplesafe control centre within 6 seconds, ensuring peace of mind and security on every journey.

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