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Non-disclosure agreements should be banned to tackle sexual harassment, equality body says

The #metoo campaign has helped bring sexual harassment in the industry into the open. Photo: Shutterstock The #metoo campaign has helped bring sexual harassment in the industry into the open. Photo: Shutterstock
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Non-disclosure agreements intended to suppress complaints of sexual harassment at work should be banned, according to the UK’s national equality organisation.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned of the “corrosive” and “toxic” workplace cultures that have allowed harassment to thrive, while those subjected to inappropriate behaviour are silenced.

The commission set out a list of recommendations for government and employers aimed at better protecting people at work. These include restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses that prevent employees from making sexual harassment claims public.

Equity recently said it had particular concerns over the use of non-disclosure agreements that have been used in theatre to forbid anything from the casting or production process to be made public. It said the signing of an NDA or any other agreement should not have “the unintended consequence of creating a safe haven for bullies and harassers”.

The EHRC claims that by making discussion of harassment more open, people may be encouraged to report incidents more often.

A report by The Stage into harassment and bullying in theatre found that, of those who said they had experienced inappropriate behaviour at work, more than two thirds did not report it.

Other recommendations made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its report include:

  • A mandatory duty on employers to take steps that protect workers from harassment and victimisation at work, the breaching of which would constitute an unlawful act.
  • Employers should publish their policy around sexual harassment and make it easily accessible online.
  • The UK Government should introduce a statutory code of practice around sexual harassment, outlining steps that employers should take to prevent and respond to incidents.
  • The government should develop an online tool to allow individuals to report sexual harassment at work, addressing barriers around speaking out.
  • Regular data collection about sexual harassment should be undertaken on a national scale to determine its prevalence and nature at work.
  • The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service should develop sexual harassment training for managers and staff.

The recommendations were drawn up after the EHRC surveyed more than 1,000 people earlier this year.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said the research set out to find out how sexual harassment is experienced and dealt with at work, and its results were “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 the extent and we are complacent as to its 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,” she said.