FTSE 100 companies are facing legal action if they fail to show evidence of tackling sexual harassment.
The unprecedented move by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the corporate world comes after allegations of sexual harassment swept through Hollywood and Westminster. The equality watchdog has written today to the chairmen and chairwomen of the FTSE 100 companies and other leading organisations asking them to supply evidence of the safeguards they have in place to prevent sexual harassment and to ensure it can be reported without fear of retribution.
The companies have been given until January 19 to reply. If the commission is not satisfied or discovers evidence of systematic failings, it will consider exercising its enforcement powers. These include undertaking investigations into organisations that it suspects are not taking adequate steps to protect its workforce.
The letter says: “As you will have seen, recent high-profile testimonies demonstrate pervasive sexual harassment in contexts as diverse as Hollywood and Westminster, and the lack of redress for those women and men who experience it. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is gathering evidence on the most effective means to prevent and respond to this issue.”
The watchdog is also asking people who have experienced sexual harassment to submit their thoughts online on how best to deal with it in the workplace. The letter adds that many sexual harassment testimonies have been shocking but are “sadly unsurprising”. It points to research conducted by the TUC last year that found that 52 per cent of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes. Among young women aged between 16 and 24, that proportion rose to 63 per cent.
One in eight women reported unwanted sexual touching of their breasts, buttocks or genitals, or attempts to kiss them at work, and 1 per cent said they had been raped or seriously sexually assaulted in their workplace. Almost a fifth said they had been harassed by their line manager or another person with authority over them.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the commission, said: “Sexual harassment is rife across all of our industries. We accept it far too easily, in terms of the culture we live in. Accountability lies with leadership. It is not enough to report a nil return.”
The commission, which has produced legal guidance on sexual harassment for businesses, has backed complaints bring allegations of sexual harassment or assault in the courts.