Employers face landmark legal action over sexual harassment

Four major employers face a landmark legal action over the sexual harassment of staff, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said. 

Organisations in the legal and education sectors could be subject to an official investigation by the Government-funded office after staff came forward to complain of ill treatment. 

The announcement comes after the commission’s report earlier this year which found that “corrosive” working cultures had silenced victims and normalised harassment

The identity of the employers is unknown as the Commission has not yet decided whether or not to launch the investigations, but the Daily Telegraph understands that they are high-profile within their sectors. 

The EHRC has launched only one other such investigation within the past few years, into unlawful harassment, discrimination and victimisation of black, female and gay police officers in the Metropolitan Police. 

The enforcement action could end in a court case and fine if the employers do not comply with the Commission’s recommendations. 

One of the current cases was brought to their attention after an individual woman approached the Commission with a dossier of evidence, while the other three were raised by solicitors who notified the EHRC of alleged sexual harassment victims that they were representing.

“We’re currently looking at four potential enforcement actions in relation to sexual harassment. That’s up from not having looked at any last year and I think that reflects the fact that more is coming to us now,” said Elizabeth Prochaska, the organisation’s legal director. 

“One of the issues we face is that it’s hard for us to get our hands on the evidence. Individual victims of harassment are not coming to us in significant numbers,” she added.

Speaking to MPs on the Women and Equalities committee on Wednesday morning, she argued that women should not have to “endure a protracted legal process in order to get access to justice in order to remedy a terrible situation at work”. 

She said policymakers needed to lift the “crushing burden” of whistleblowing off individual women. 

The revelation follows the “Me Too” movement, which has prompted many women and men to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment.

Employers were unprepared for Me Too, which “caught people flat-footed”, added Sue Coe, also of the organisation. 

Both the legal and education sectors have had complaints and issues emerge in response to Me Too. 

Last November Susan Bassnett, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Glasgow, wrote in Times Higher Education that she had experienced unwanted attention from “some very senior men, including a handful of vice-chancellors, professors and well-known writers”.

In March US law firm Latham & Watkins said its married chair and managing partner Bill Voge would step down after admitting the “exchange of communications of a sexual nature with a woman whom he has never met in person and who had no connection to the Firm”. 

In February it emerged that a partner at another firm, Baker McKenzie, had lost his job after allegations that he had sexually assaulted a female colleague several years ago. 

Several law firms have since told employees that they must declare romantic relationships with colleagues to a manager or their HR department. 

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