27/03/2018 00:01 BST

Ban Gagging Orders That Silence Sexual Harassment Victims, Watchdog Warns Government

'What we found was truly shocking.'

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The use of gagging orders to silence sexual harassment claims should be outlawed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said. 

The report, which gathered evidence from more than 1,000 people and their employers, uncovered a litany of “truly shocking” examples of sexual harassment, including a 17-year-old who locked herself in a toilet after men “joked” about rape, and a woman who lost her job and her health after experiencing sexual harassment.

The report condemns “corrosive” working cultures in the UK and demands new laws to void any contract which bars individuals from speaking out about sexual harassment or future acts of discrimination, harassment or victimisation. 

It found that one in five women had been harassed by customers or clients and, of those, only around half reported their experience. 

The investigation by the UK’s leading human rights watchdog was launched in the wake of the revelations about the now-defunct Presidents Club, where hostesses were made to sign confidentiality agreements prior to working at the notorious men-only annual dinner, during which many women said they were routinely harassed by rich and powerful men.

The EHRC said, despite the high-profile #MeToo campaign shining a light on the scale of sexual harassment, toxic working environments have been “normalised”. 

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.Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

In Turning Tables: ending sexual harassment at work, the EHRC found that: 

  • The most common perpetrator was a senior colleague

  • Just two thirds of employers trained line managers on harassment. 

  • Only around two out of five employers included information on harassment in their induction processes.

  • 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 cited the fact that they had a general grievance policy. 

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, 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.”

Nicky J Sims via Getty Images

Hilsenrath added: “It cannot be right that millions of people go to work fearing what might have happened by the time they come home.”

The EHRC has recommended there should be a new legal duty on employers to prevent harassment or victimisation, as well as more protection for victims.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, 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.”

Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton added: “We have heard a huge amount of testimonies that show how widespread this problem is but so far we have seen very little action.”