Time’s up on non-disclosure agreements, says national equality body

Published: 27 Mar 2018

Corrosive working cultures have silenced the voices of victims and normalised sexual harassment, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said today as it published a set of recommendations to better protect people at work.

Focusing on changing culture, greater transparency, and strengthening legal protection, the recommendations call on government to introduce legislation preventing employers from using non-disclosure agreements to sweep sexual harassment under the carpet and protect their reputation. Instead, they should only be used at a victim’s request.

The recommendations also call for the time limit to bring a claim of sexual harassment to tribunal to be extended to six months, reflecting the time taken by many individuals to raise complaints.

In developing the recommendations, the Commission asked members of the public to share their experiences of workplace sexual harassment and wrote to leading employers, including the Chairs of the FTSE 100 and magic circle law firms, reminding them of their legal responsibility for the safety and dignity of their employees and asking for evidence of their policy and practice.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

'We set out to discover how sexual harassment at work is dealt with by employers and how it is experienced by individuals. What we found was truly shocking. There is a lack of consistent, effective action being taken by employers, and people’s careers and mental and physical health have been damaged as a result.

'Corrosive cultures have silenced individuals and sexual harassment has been normalised. We underestimate extent and we are complacent as to impact. We need urgent action to turn the tables in British workplaces; shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it. That’s what our recommendations set out to do.

'It cannot be right that millions of people go to work fearing what might have happened by the time they come home. Employers need to stand up and take responsibility for eliminating sexual harassment from every British workplace.'

One woman said:

'[I] was 17 [and] had to lock myself in toilet because of rape jokes turning to threats [and] older waiters joking over who was going to take my virginity when they found out I was a church goer. This was [the] last straw after many other incidents. [My] boss told me that’s just how men talk and to go home.'

Another simply said:

“I lost my job, my reputation and my health.”

Young Women's Trust Chief Executive Dr Carole Easton OBE said:

'Young Women’s Trust welcomes the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report to prevent sexual harassment at work. Recommendations must now be taken forward to make it easier to report incidents, put in place unbiased processes that do not penalise victims and improve workplace culture.

'Reporting sexual harassment can be hard and particularly so if you are in a junior role, on low pay or in insecure work, for fear of losing your job and your income. This has to change. We have heard a huge amount of testimonies that show how widespread this problem is but so far we have seen very little action. The Government and employers must now commit to taking action without delay.'

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, said:

'No woman should face humiliation, intimidation or harassment at work. Sadly it’s becoming increasingly clear not only that it’s an all too common experience but that far too many employers are turning a blind eye or even silencing victims of harassment.

'It’s time for employers to demonstrate proactively how they will protect their staff and prevent sexual harassment. The first step is to give women the confidence to come forward and then genuinely listen to them when they do, instead of preventing them speaking out or hoping money will make the problem go away. It won’t.'

Rachel Krys, Co-Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said:

'There is evidence of endemic levels of sexual harassment and abuse of women in British workplaces and institutions, and what this important report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission highlights is how shockingly poor the response of employers can be.  

'Parliament has recognised how critical support and advocacy is to victims disclosing abuse and is introducing new systems to address sexual harassment in Westminster. However, women up and down the country, including those in insecure employment or from marginalised communities, face significant barriers and a culture of silencing when they want to report abuse and seek help. 

'As this report suggests, we must look at current practices around non disclosure agreements, collect better data and call on the Government and employers to do more to change workplace culture, to increase confidence in reporting and make tackling harassment a priority.'

Collated under one title ‘Turning Tables: ending sexual harassment at work’, the other recommendations include asking:

The UK Government to...

  • implement a new positive legal duty on employers to take effective steps to prevent harassment or victimisation in the workplace; the duty will be enforceable by the Commission
  • produce a statutory code of practice that sets out the steps employers need to take to comply with this duty, with a possible 25% uplift in compensation when an employer breaches the code
  • strengthen protection for those harassed by customers and clients
  • collect data from individuals across England, Scotland and Wales every three years to determine the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment and produce an action plan to address the problems revealed

ACAS to...

  • develop targeted sexual harassment training for managers, staff and workplace sexual harassment ‘champions’

Employers to...

  • be transparent and publish their separate sexual harassment policy and steps being taken to implement and evaluate it in an easily accessible part of their external website so their current and potential employees are clear about how this important issue is being addressed.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are liable for acts of sexual harassment by one employee towards another unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it. There are currently no minimum requirements, but reasonable steps should include an anti-harassment policy and appropriate procedures for reporting harassment and taking action.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which is intended to, or has the effect of violating a person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Examples include unwelcome physical contact, sexual comments, promises in return for sexual favours, and displaying sexually graphic pictures.

Even if unwanted conduct is not intended to cause distress, it can still have the effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an offensive environment. Whether or not unwanted sexual conduct violates a person’s dignity or creates an offensive environment depends on the victim’s perspective and whether their reaction is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Read the recommendations

Read the full recommendations in our report Turning the tables: ending sexual harassment at work.

Notes to editors

The recommendations have been informed by evidence gathered from nearly 1,000 individuals and employers which found:

  • the most common perpetrator of sexual harassment was a senior colleague
  • one in five of those responding had been harassed by customers or clients
  • around half of respondents hadn’t reported their experience of harassment to anyone in the workplace.

Barriers to reporting included:

  • the view that raising the issue was useless as the organisation did not take the issue seriously
  • a belief that alleged perpetrators, particularly senior staff, would be protected
  • fear of victimisation
  • a lack of appropriate reporting procedures

In around half of the cases where individuals did report the incident, respondents said that employers took no action as a result and where action was taken this was often negative for the person who reported the issue.

  • around two thirds of the employers that responded trained line managers on harassment. This fell to around half in relation to training offered to other staff
  • only around two out of five employers included information on harassment in their induction processes
  • fewer than a third of the employers who provided evidence evaluated the effectiveness of their harassment policy through methods such as regular staff surveys
  • only around one quarter of employers who responded had information for customers or service users on appropriate behaviour towards staff
  • when asked about the steps taken to ensure that all employees felt able to report sexual harassment, most employers simply cited the fact that they had a general grievance policy. These grievance procedures did not appear to address the significant barriers to reporting described by individuals who shared their experiences
  • around one in six of the employers who provided evidence had either not taken any steps to prevent victimisation or were unsure whether any such steps had been taken
  • although most employers said they had taken action, in the majority of cases this appeared to be limited to having a policy or other form of documentation which made reference to victimisation

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102