There is no place for harassment of any kind and the Worker Protection Bill seeks to strengthen protections against harassment in the workplace. Concerns have been raised by some parliamentarians about the balance the Bill strikes between protecting free speech and tackling harassment. In response to this, the Government has made amendments to the Bill to address these concerns but will study these closely in Parliament.
The purpose of the Bill is to make employers liable for the harassment of their employees by third parties (such as customers or clients) and to introduce a specific duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment of their employees.
Currently, under the Equality Act 2010, employers can already be considered vicariously liable for the harassment of an employee in the course of their employment, unless the employer can show that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment from happening. Clause One of the Bill extends employer liability to also cover acts of harassment committed by third parties, if the employer fails to take all reasonable steps to prevent that harassment.
There were fears from the Government that employers may take unreasonable or drastic measures to avoid liability for staff harassment, particularly from third parties, such as shutting down conversations in the workplace. Therefore, the Government tabled an amendment to the Bill to clarify to employers what is expected of them under the Bill and the wider Equality Act 2010. The amendments would provide that, in certain circumstances, an employer would not be liable if harassment resulted from an employee overhearing conversations at work in which opinions were expressed on “political, moral, religious or social” matters.
The Government does not believe that compliance with Bill will be burdensome and does not expect businesses to stop all harassment, rather to take “all reasonable steps” to stop it happening in the first place. The concept of “reasonable steps” is not new for businesses, additionally, the Government will publish guidance in due course further outlining what businesses can do.
In my Ministerial role at the DWP, I encourage businesses to provide support to women going through the menopause to help them stay in work and recently announced the appointment of Helen Tomlinson as the new Menopause Champion. As part of this voluntary role, Helen will focus on encouraging employers to develop menopause policies to create more supportive environments to help women experiencing menopause to stay and progress in work.