There is no place for harassment of any kind. 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 closely any amendments in Parliament.
The purpose of the Bill is to make employers liable for 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. The Government 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, furthermore the Government will publish guidance in due course further outlining what business can do.
I appreciate the concerns raised over the possibility of staff being “offended” and suing their employer. The Bill, though, concerns an employer’s liability only for workplace harassment, not for trivial upset. With all cases of harassment under the Equality Act 2010, courts and tribunals will be required to balance competing rights on the facts of that particular case, including the rights of freedom of expression and of academic freedom, against the right not to be offended, in deciding whether a person has been harassed.