Last reviewed 27 November 2020

We reported in August that Sainsbury’s had signed a legally binding document with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after being found liable for sexual harassment against a member of staff (see Sainsbury’s signs harassment agreement with equality watchdog).

The Highways Agency, which employs 5000 people, has become the latest organisation to be investigated by the equality body after it was involved in a case where a staff member was awarded £74,000 in compensation for sexual harassment and unfair dismissal.

An employment tribunal earlier this year found in favour of the ex-employee who had been sexually harassed by her boss for months before leaving the organisation.

The EHRC then wrote to Highways England highlighting its enforcement powers, which include the power to investigate an organisation, to ensure they had taken the necessary steps to prevent sexual harassment occurring in the future.

The steps now adopted by Highways England include measures set out in EHRC’s technical guidance for employers, which was produced in January this year, offering a legal explanation and practical examples of how to tackle and respond effectively to harassment.

This can be found at https://equalityhumanrights.com.

EHRC Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said: “Everyone deserves to feel respected and safe at work. Yet a decade since the Equality Act 2010, and 45 years since the Sexual Discrimination Act first protected women from discrimination at work, it’s clear there is still a long way to go before we can say sexual harassment is a thing of the past.”

Highways Agency signed the legal document, known as a Section 23 agreement under the Equality Act 2006, to improve protections from sexual harassment in the workplace.

What will this involve?

The key measures include:

  • implementing a new Respect at Work Policy

  • updating the Agency’s E-learning module on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, which will be mandatory for all employees

  • appointing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Champions

  • launching a new Redeployment Policy

  • practical training in conducting discipline and grievance investigations and hearings for people managers

  • revising the Agency’s case escalation process

  • legal training for leaders and people managers

  • completing risk assessments in relation to sexual harassment and putting mitigations in place to manage identified risks.

Comment by Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula

Employers are likely going to take this onboard if it means that it is a crucial step to avoiding costly discrimination claims at an employment tribunal.

However, while most will note that this requirement by the EHRC does not stretch to all employers across the UK, it is nonetheless true that it may be the best way to avoid such tribunal claims befalling other organisations.