Our Employment Law team have found that sexual harassment in the workplace remains a problem, particularly now people have returned to work and are once again attending business conferences and work social events.
Sexual harassment in the workplace – the numbers
In February 2023 the media publicised the fact that McDonald’s have signed a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to show they are committed to communicating a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. This was in response to a number of high-profile international claims, the most newsworthy being a 2020 class action filed in the US representing more than 5,000 women at more than 100 McDonald’s locations.
A 2020 survey carried out by the Government Equalities Office found that 30% of women had experienced sexual harassment at work over the past year, as compared with 27% of men. Only 51% thought that their employer was tackling sexual harassment well. Two thirds of those surveyed had not noticed any changes in how their employer approached the issue of sexual harassment at work.
A government study published in 2020 found that just 15% of people who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace felt confident making a complaint to their employer, something which makes it likely that employers will underestimate the level of harassment taking place. Out of those who did report it, 41% said that there were no consequences for the perpetrator.
The study also found that, although all employees can experience sexual harassment at work, there was a higher incidence among those aged under 35, people from an ethnic minority, those identifying as LGBT+, and those with a disability. 48% of those who reported their workplace sexual harassment were asked to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) in relation to their experience.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are committed to ensure that NDAs are not preventing staff from reporting these and similar issues to them or to other regulators or law enforcement agencies or making disclosures which are protected by law, such as whistleblowing. A Warning Notice was published in November 2020 which gave guidance to all managers and employees of law firms, those responsible for managing HR and complaints in law firms and practitioners dealing with NDAs, including in-house lawyers.
This made it clear that anyone failing to report a serious breach of the solicitors’ regulatory requirements or other wrongdoing or criminal conduct, by them or their firm, or improperly using NDAs would be in breach of our SRA principles and liable to disciplinary action. They also made it clear that if the NDA sought to do any of the above, the practitioner might need to cease acting for their client.