With only one week to go before the Christmas break, the festive season is definitely in full swing. With the pandemic now safely behind us, many employers have decided to reintroduce their annual Christmas parties. The Christmas party may be seen to be the perfect opportunity for staff to get together and let their hair down, particularly in light of recent years and the fact that many of us continue to from home. However, staff often forget that their work party is essentially an extension of the workplace, and although employers will have taken the usual steps taken to limit the risks associated with Christmas parties (such as limiting alcohol and reminding staff of the required behaviour), they should also be mindful of The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 (the “Act”) that’s due to come into force on 26 October 2024.
The Act introduces a new duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees in the workplace. Whilst this new duty does not give rise to a standalone claim, an Employment Tribunal will have the power to increase compensation awards by up to 25% if the employer is found to be in breach of the new duty. This could result in costly awards, damage to reputation and thus damage to working relationships as well as creating negative staff morale. It is also worth noting that this new duty can be enforced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) using existing powers of enforcement.
Although the Act doesn’t come inforce until October 2024, employers really need to act now to ensure that sufficient provisions are in place. Whilst there is no guidance as to the meaning of “reasonable steps” within the Act, employers should be looking to:
- Update their policies to ensure they reflect the new law (this may also involve creating a new standalone policy).
- Make sure staff are sufficiently aware of the policies and ensure they are aware of acceptable standards of behaviour.
- Provide adequate training (including annual refresher sessions).
- Create clear guidelines and reporting procedures so that employees know how to safely raise concerns relating to sexual harassment.
- Consider potential areas where individuals may be more at risk of sexual harassment and ensure that appropriate action is taken.
- Think about ways to promote a culture that fosters openness and transparency.
- Assess timescales and best practices to ensure that concerns relating to sexual harassment can be investigated and dealt with quickly for all concerned.
The EHRC intends to issue guidance to help employers comply with the new obligations. If you haven’t already signed up for Bevan Brittan’s updates, please do so by clicking here as we will be running a series of articles as further details emerge.
In the meantime, any issues relating to sexual harassment that arise following work related Christmas parties or events should be investigated quickly and in line with current policies and procedures. Any areas of risk that are identified during the investigation should be addressed to ensure that “reasonable steps” are being taken now!