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Taking ‘Reasonable Steps’ Towards a Safer Work Environment

June 18, 2024

While there is much to celebrate in our LGBTQIA+ communities all around the world this Pride month, it is also a time to reflect on the fact there is still so much more to do. This has never been truer than in the workplace.   The Equality Act 2010 has offered protection from discrimination in the workplace for nearly fifteen years now and from October, the new proactive duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace will build upon its protections. However, LGBTQIA+ people continue to suffer terrible experiences in the workplace.

Brief Explanation of the Law

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them’.

Later this year, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 places increased responsibility on businesses to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, as defined in the Equality Act 2010.

‘Reasonable steps’ is not defined in the 2023 Act, but they will be interpreted as actions that are practical, proportionate, and tailored to the circumstances of the workplace. That should include training for all employees, a process of reporting incidents of sexual harassment (without fear of reprisal e.g. anonymous reporting) and effective anti-harassment enforcement policies.

The Statistics

Shockingly, there are high levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault being reported by members of the LGTBQIA+ community in the workplace. Around 7 out of 10 LGBTQIA+ workers have experienced at least one type of sexual harassment at work (68%) and almost 1 in 8 LGBTQIA+ women (12%) have reported being seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work.

This is a hidden problem, as many people do not report these incidents in fear of it having a negative impact on their relationships at work or their career, or that by reporting the harassment their identity will be revealed to others, something they themselves had chosen not to do.

A survey carried out by the Trades Union Congress outlines a range of longer-term impacts on individuals caused by experience of sexual harassment at work. Around 1 in 6 people (16%) reported a negative effect on their mental health and a similar amount (16%) left their job as a result of being sexually harassed.

This report gave light to the plethora of comments that have been made to LGBTQIA+ colleagues in the workplace, from being told ‘[I want to] turn you straight’, to ‘ flouncy old queen’, to “you shouldn’t be out if you don’t want to talk about it,” when refusing to answer questions about their sex life. 

Therefore, it is extremely important for employers to not only implement the ‘reasonable steps’ outlined in the new Act to prevent sexual harassment, but to take meaningful and impactful steps in order to bring about a change in attitudes and, in turn, workplace cultural changes. No one should think that a LGBTQIA+ colleague is ’fair game’ for sexualised comments or inappropriate questions, never mind sexual assault.

Important to Remember

Anyone can experience sexual harassment at work, and it can also take place in a range of different work locations – a client or employer’s home, on a work trip, a team-away day or at other work social events such as the Christmas Party.

It is also important to note that any claim that a comment or action was meant as a joke or a compliment is not a defence in a sexual harassment case, nor does the harassment have to be directed at the person complaining about it.

This new law marks a big step forward in the UK’s commitment to creating (and maintaining) workplaces free from sexual harassment. By embracing this new proactive duty, employers can contribute to a safer and more inclusive working environment for everyone.

If you have any questions on this or on any other area of Employment law, please get in touch with the Blackadders Employment team, working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and across Scotland.

The opinions expressed in this site are of the author(s) only and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Blackadders LLP.

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