Employers urged to tackle harassment passed off as 'banter'

Abigail Fenton
Two young women laughing while talking in the office behind their male colleague
Image: Getty Images

The head of the UK’s equality watchdog has called for a crackdown on sexual harassment disguised as “banter” in the office.

Writing directly to CEOs, Rebecca Hilsensrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said a “dramatic shift in workplace culture” is needed to create “a working environment where no one feels threatened”.

“'It is time for all employers to step up action against misconduct and protect their staff from harassment. It’s been two years since #MeToo forced sexual harassment to the top of the agenda,” Hilsenrath wrote. “We’ve seen some employers wake up, take this on board and start to make the differences which will transform working environments and boost the economy through empowering people to reach their potential. But we need others to follow suit.”

Your Questions About Workplace Sexual Harassment Answered

This came as the EHRC published new guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace, which explains different forms that harassment can take under the Equality Act and the responsibility of employers to prevent victimisation at work.

The guidance states: “Employers are responsible for ensuring employees do not face sexual harassment in the workplace. They should take reasonable steps to protect their workers and will be liable for the harassment committed by their workers if they fail to do so.”

It also reminds employees that unwanted “banter” in the workplace could be sexual harassment.

READ MORE: The cost of sexual harassment in the workplace

“What one worker – or even a majority of workers – might see as harmless fun or ‘banter’, another may find acceptable,” it says. “It is important to realise that conduct can amount to harassment or sexual harassment even if that is not how it was intended.”

Dame Heather Rabbatts, chair of Time’s Up UK, voiced support for the act and said it would go a long way to “ensuring employers, workers and their representatives understand the extent and impact of harassment in the workplace, the law in this area and the best practices for effective prevention and response”.