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The UK Worker Protection Act 2023, amending the 2010 Equality Act, represents a significant milestone in safeguarding employees against sexual harassment. With a compliance deadline of October 26, 2024, this Act places a proactive responsibility on employers to prevent sexual harassment, marking a shift from reactive to preventative strategies. This amendment applies to workplace sexual harassment only; other forms of harassment or discrimination, such as based on age, religion and gender, remain covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Why the Worker Protection Act matters

The urgency of this Act is highlighted through alarming statistics: 40% of women and 18% of men have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work in the UK, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2018. Furthermore, a staggering 75% of people have witnessed sexual harassment at work. These figures underscore the pervasive nature of the problem and the necessity for robust preventive measures.

Previously, the law required employers to avoid harassing their employees or job applicants. Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that violates a person’s dignity or creates a hostile environment. Under the new Act, employers must take “reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to tailored strategies that address specific workplace risks to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to tailored strategies that address specific workplace risks.

Key provisions of the Worker Protection Act

Proactive duty to prevent harassment: Employers must implement proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment. This includes developing comprehensive policies, providing regular and meaningful training, and assessing and mitigating risks specific to their workplace.

No standalone right for individuals: While individuals cannot enforce the Act independently, an employment tribunal considering a sexual harassment claim will evaluate the extent of the employer’s compliance with the new duty, potentially increasing compensation by up to 25% if the duty is breached.

Enforcement mechanisms: The EHRC will play a critical role in enforcement, conducting investigations, creating action plans and issuing injunctions. They can also publish information about breaches, significantly impacting the public image of the offending organization.

Preparing for compliance

Organizations must begin preparations well in advance to comply with the Worker Protection Act. The EHRC is expected to release detailed guidance in September 2024, but companies should start by reviewing and updating their current policies and training programs.

Key steps for employers to comply with the UK Worker Protection Act 2023

  • Policy review and development: Companies should first examine their existing policies. It’s crucial to have a clear, distinct sexual harassment policy or to ensure this is prominently addressed within broader policies. Define sexual harassment clearly, provide concrete examples and ensure no ambiguity.
  • Training programs: Regular training sessions are essential. These should be for new hires and as regular refreshers for all staff. Training should cover recognizing sexual harassment, the steps to take if it occurs, and the roles of bystanders in preventing harassment.
  • Risk assessments: Identify roles and situations that might be more susceptible to sexual harassment, such as late-night shifts or positions with significant power imbalances. Tailor preventive measures to address these specific risks.
  • Reporting mechanisms: Develop transparent, accessible reporting systems. These should include various reporting channels, such as hotlines, designated emails, and include anonymous options. Clear procedures for when and how to report ensure employees know what to do if they experience or witness sexual harassment.
  • Building a supportive culture: Foster a workplace culture that encourages reporting and supports victims in speaking up. This involves HR actively engaging with employees, building trust and ensuring prompt investigation of complaints. It’s about compliance and creating a safe and supportive work environment.
  • Documentation and monitoring: Keep detailed records of all preventive measures, training sessions, and incidents. Regular audits and staff feedback can help refine strategies and ensure ongoing compliance.

Engaging leadership and employees

Buy-in from leadership is crucial and a tone at the top must be set to prevent sexual harassment. When senior management is visibly committed to preventing harassment, it sends a strong message throughout the organization. Engage staff in developing solutions, gather data through surveys and focus groups, and ensure everyone understands the importance of the Act and their role in maintaining a safe workplace.

Addressing challenges and prospects

Despite the Act’s focus on sexual harassment, questions arise about its application to other forms of harassment. While this Act specifically targets sexual harassment due to its high prevalence and impact, it sets a precedent that could influence future legislation.

Training remains a challenge, especially in differentiating between types of harassment. However, targeted training for various roles, including bystanders and managers, can empower employees to prevent and address harassment appropriately.

Overall, the UK Worker Protection Act 2023 is a landmark step towards creating safer workplaces. By prioritizing prevention, it ensures employers take proactive measures to protect their employees from sexual harassment. As the compliance deadline approaches, organizations must act swiftly to review their policies, implement practical training, and build a culture of safety and respect. By doing so, they comply with the law and foster a positive and productive work environment for all employees.

To learn more about how NAVEX can help your company to remain compliant with upcoming legal changes:

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This content is informational. It is not and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Please consult your attorney for advice relating to your specific circumstances.