The New Worker Protection Act

male boss putting his hand on female colleague legs under a table - you can see their legs - New worker protection act

The UK Government is set to introduce the New Worker Protection Act, coming into force in October 2024. The Act puts more responsibility on the employer to protect employees from sexual harassment. It is being implemented to create a safer workplace environment, ensuring employers are proactive and taking all necessary steps to prevent workplace sexual harassment.

An ACAS consultation stated that the new law being implemented this year does not go far enough. Still, the Worker Protection Act is a step in the right direction for workplace safety and equality. The general feeling is that employers in the UK are not prepared for the changes to come with the new Worker Protection Act. Employers are encouraged to engage with ACAS and HR consultants to help aid in preparation for the new Act.

This Act is only coming into force in Great Britain on 26th October 2024 and not in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, there are different provisions in place regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employer duties following the new Worker Protection Act

The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act) Act, originating as a Private Members Bill supported by the UK Government was enacted on 26 October 2023 and came into force a year later. Employers will have enhanced duties to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Including emphasis on the need to take reasonable steps, such as enforcing a clear anti-harassment policy, and providing frequent training on preventing and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace. If a complaint is raised, a prompt investigation must take place, and if required disciplinary action should be carried out. Continuous reviewing and updating of policy is required.

There is a potential for a lower threshold for duty on employers, as the act removes the word ‘all’ from ‘all reasonably practicable steps.’ This change is not clear but once the legislation is implemented and interpreted, it will become clearer for employers.

This act is specifically targeting the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace and no other forms of harassment based on protected characteristics.

Impact if a business fails to comply.

Where sexual harassment claims are successful and it identifies the employer has not fulfilled their duty in preventing harassment in the workplace, leads to a 25% in uplift to the compensation awarded to the employee.

Failure to comply will cause a significant reputation impact leading to potential and existing customers, candidates, and employees boycotting the company. The company will see a downturn in performance and profits.

Statistics of sexual harassment in the UK workplace

A survey by Trade Union Congress (TUC) of 1000 women in the UK, found that 3 out of 5 women have experienced harassment at work. This includes 43% of the women experienced at least three incidents of sexual harassment at work.

The survey also shockingly found that 39% of the recent incidents “perpetrator of the sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse was a third party rather than another member of staff” (TUC).

Employees are not always forthcoming when incidents occur, the survey found that only 30% of women who experienced sexual harassment at work would report the incident to their employer.

McDonald’s sexual harassment cases

In 2023, it came to light that McDonald’s was receiving weekly sexual harassment claims and currently probing 27 sexual harassment claims (As of November 2023). McDonald’s UK chief executive has described the claims as “truly horrific”, with the company receiving one to two sexual harassment claims per week, highlighting the need for immediate action by the company.

The level of claims reflects poorly on the company’s workplace culture and raises questions about McDonald’s HR policies and procedures in place to prevent these situations from arising.

Where McDonald’s may have gone wrong

The level of claims suggests the current measures set to prevent sexual harassment are insufficient, whether this is poor training or failing to enforce current policies. Alternatively, a poor workplace culture that does not prioritise their employee’s safety, and a workplace culture that allows harassment to occur or go unchallenged can undermine even the most well-intentioned policies.

The number of ongoing investigations implies that the process for reporting and resolving complaints might be ineffective or overly complex, discouraging employees who have experienced this from coming forward or leading to delays in addressing the issues.

The situation at McDonald’s suggests a potential lack of accountability at various levels, with leaders possibly not taking sufficient action to prevent harassment or address it effectively when it occurs. Continuous education and training on sexual harassment are essential in maintaining a respectful workplace. The recurring nature of these complaints may indicate a gap in McDonald’s training programs or in ensuring that all employees understand the seriousness of harassment and their role in preventing it.

Going forward

McDonald’s needs to tackle this situation head-on and completely revamp its current policy and procedures, especially how this is communicated to employees. Training employees especially managers are a must to transform their current toxic workplace culture. Ensuring transparency throughout the process and involving employees at all levels can also help in rebuilding trust and affirming the company’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace.

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