Pub banter and social media posts could be classed as workplace harassment, the UK’s equality watchdog has warned.
New guidance setting out steps for preventing harassment and victimisation in the workplace has been issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The advice includes developing effective policies, training and knowing how to deal with complaints.
In time, the new guidance will become statutory measures enforceable by law.
The EHRC said there was an “overwhelming” need for tougher action on harassment in the workplace.
Such harassment can include offensive, humiliating, intimidating, hostile or degrading behaviour relating to race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability or religion.
According to a survey conducted by trade union body the TUC in 2019, more than 70% of LGBTQ+ workers said that they had experienced sexual harassment at work, while seven out of 10 Asian and Black workers reported experiencing racial harassment at work. Many incidents of Islamophobia and antisemitism were also reported.
One-third of respondents had experienced age discrimination in the past year, and women were 8% more likely to experience age prejudice than men.
“What one worker – or even a majority of workers – might see as harmless fun or ‘banter’, another may find unacceptable. A worker complaining about conduct may be considered by others to be overly sensitive or prudish,” says the report. “However, it is important to understand that conduct can amount to harassment or sexual harassment even if that is not how it was intended.”
EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said the guidance had updated in response to “widespread demand”.
“Policies and procedures are only fit for purpose if organisational culture means any transgression is treated seriously,” she said. “Our employees must come to work knowing they will be safe and protected from discrimination, victimisation and harassment of any kind.”
The seven-step advice from the EHRC aims to ensure employers develop effective anti-harassment policies. The watchdog wants businesses to:
- Develop effective anti-harassment policy
- Engage their staff
- Assess and mitigate risks in the workplace
- Think about reporting systems
- Deliver training
- Know what to do when a complaint is made
- Know what to do if dealing with sexual harassment and third parties
Ms Hilsenrath said recent high-profile cases had “shone an important light on the continued harassment many women face in the workplace”, showing that much more still needs to be done to modernise working cultures.
“We know that leading businesses are trying to make a difference in this important space and we want to support you to do that,” she stressed.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) told the BBC that it welcomed the new guidance because employers needed to ensure that employees are safe at work and that there is “a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment”.
“Line managers should also be trained and feel confident in implementing the organisation’s policies and dealing with any concerns or complaints,” said the CIPD’s head of public policy Ben Willmott.
“Leaders and managers should act as role models to help make their organisations as inclusive and respectful as possible and should be quick to pick up on any inappropriate behaviour to prevent any issues from escalation,” he said.