The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has made a legally binding agreement with McDonald’s regarding the handling of sexual harassment complaints. This document contains measures designed to protect their workers in the UK.
McDonald’s has committed to measures including communicating a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, conducting an anonymous survey regarding workplace safety, improving policies and procedures, and providing anti-harassment training,
These agreements are known as Section 23 agreements and can be agreed as an alternative to an investigation. The EHRC is the regulatory body that enforces the Equality Act 2010 and they have been granted powers to achieve this aim. Many people are unaware that the EHRC has such wide-ranging powers.
Section 23 agreements usually arise from concerns that equality law has been breached. While the agreements themselves do not constitute an admission that any laws have been broken, they generally contain an action plan to address concerns.
Concerns about McDonald’s attitude towards sexual harassment have been widespread. In 2019 the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) reported that over 1,000 claims of harassment were made to the company. Additionally, two years ago the company took the decision to compel its employees to attend anti-harassment training. This was in response to claims that multiple employees around the world had reported the company to authorities regarding harassment. It is likely that these incidents were what prompted the EHRC to get involved.
Other major companies have signed these agreements. In 2020 Sainsburys agreed to sign a section 23 agreement regarding harassment. This followed a tribunal case in which an employee successfully claimed sexual harassment. The EHRC decided that more progress needed to be made by the company on their policies and procedures.
The law as it currently stands under the Equality Act 2010 states that employers are legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed at work by another employee, and the employer has not taken all reasonable steps they could to prevent it from happening. The Worker Protection Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, includes proposals that will impose a positive duty by forcing employers to be more proactive on this issue. The focus is very much on prevention rather than reaction. Under the Bill, an employer which has failed in its duty to prevent harassment could face an additional 25% uplift in compensation in the event of harassment occurring.
There is no set definition of “all reasonable steps” but this is likely to include the provision of training, implementation of policies and thorough investigations. Employers should be thinking about their own processes and whether they need to be improved, as under the proposed Bill there will be a positive duty to prevent harassment.