Suzanne McKie QC provides evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on sexual harassment in the workplace

Suzanne McKie QC provided evidence to the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace. Zelda Perkins, former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, was among the other witnesses present.

NDAs - Non Disclosure Agreements - have been used to prevent employees from reporting sexual harassment to the police and enabled individuals and organisations to avoid the consequences of repeated offences. The groundswell of public indignation over this abuse of power and position (that is reflected in #MeToo and has caused the spectacular collapse of the career of film producer Harvey Weinstein and others) has focussed the attention of our lawmakers on how well the rights of individual employees are protected in practice

Parliamentary Select Committees are the forum where MPs gather evidence and consult expert opinion to understand better how the law works at present and to consider whether changes need to be made.

As you will see from the clip below, Suzanne McKie QC is very clear on where she stands on this matter.


Is hugging a good thing to do in the workplace?

Suzanne McKie QC was featured in the Employment Solicitor’s article ‘Is it OK to hug at work?’. Suzanne’s view is that we should not be grieving about loss of physicality in the workplace. The article is available here.

NDAs and confidentiality agreements: Parliamentary inquiry launched

MPs have launched an inquiry into workplace harassment, with particular regard to the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in the context of sexual harassment.

Although this may be welcome, we have to be very clear about what benefits there are to claimants in the use of confidentiality agreements as part of a settlement following harassment and/or termination of employment following their being harassed. We should be slow to outlaw these, as claimants/victims should be given a choice as to what is right for them in order to move on and draw a line under the trauma. No victim should be forcibly prevented (directly or indirectly) from entering into a settlement agreement with the alleged perpetrator (or those liable for the perpetrator's actions). No victim should be criticised for refusing or not feeling able to litigate on the matter or report the matter to the police - to criticise them in this way places blame or responsibility (yet again) on the victim.

See here for the relevant BBC article.

Sexual harassment in the news

There may be a number of reasons for the lack of details in press reporting of recent incidents of alleged sexual harassment. It is not easy to understand in each case what the alleged perpetrator is said to have done. The spectrum of what can amount to sexual harassment as a matter of law is somewhat wide.

But perhaps one lesson that the incidents we have heard about may teach us is that there is a need for much more detailed sexual harassment policies than you see today in many organisations. These policies very often do not contain a full and illuminating definition of sexual harassment – a few examples are really not sufficient to describe the many and varied ways in which words or actions can amount to sexual harassment. There should be extensive examples. 

In certain organisations where a high level of trust is involved you currently see policies that are very prescriptive about what those governed by the policies are allowed to do – a touch on the elbow may be acceptable but a touch on the shoulder not. Whatever you think about where the line is drawn, this approach at least provides certainty and that has a good deal to commend it and perhaps now needs to be adopted more widely.

The other way in which policies might improve is to emphasise that a person may be guilty of sex harassment where the effect is to create a hostile and intimidating environment, even where that was not the perpetrator’s intention – as such it is important that those reading the policy understand that the perspective of the victim is critical.

Lastly, another way in which many policies fall down is the lack of emphasis on the protection afforded by the law to the complainant – that is, that the law prevents the complainant suffering from detriment at the hands of the employer, public service provider, academic or training institution etc., where the complainant makes a complaint of sex harassment.

Those who may have suffered sex harassment need to be provided with much more information about the protection the law will give them - and the support and protection the organisation will also guarantee should a complaint be made, in every case other than where an allegation is false and made in bad faith.