Preventing sexual harassment at work

Table of Contents:

Preventing sexual harassment at work

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Preventing sexual harassment at work


These categories group together and put in context the legislative and non-legislative initiatives which deal with the same topic.

Employment and social policy > Equality between men and women

Preventing sexual harassment at work

1) Objective

To seek the opinion of the social partners on the question of protecting the dignity of men and women at work (referred to as “sexual harassment”).

2) Community Measure

Commission communication of 24 July 1996 concerning the consultation of management and labour on the prevention of sexual harassment at work.

3) Contents

In accordance with Article 4 of the Recommendation of 27 November 1991 (see summary, 9.14a), the Member States informed the Commission in 1994 and in 1995 of measures taken to promote awareness of the fact that sexual harassment is unacceptable. These are the elements used in drawing up the “Evaluation report concerning the Commission Recommendation on the protection of the dignity of men and women at work” which is attached to the communication.

As sexual harassment is an affront to the dignity of the individual and a hindrance to productivity within the European Union, it constitutes an obstacle to an efficient labour market in which men and women work together.

Some specific groups are particularly vulnerable: divorced or separated women, new entrants to the labour market, those with irregular or precarious employment, women with disabilities, women from racial minorities, homosexuals and young men.

Given the growing trend towards men and women working together at similar levels, many cases of sexual harassment now take place between persons at the same level in the hierarchy, not always between employees and their superiors.

Sexual harassment has adverse consequences for all:

  • workers subject to it, in terms of health, confidence, morale, performance and career prospects;
  • workers not themselves the object thereof but who are witness to it or have knowledge of it, in terms of working environment, etc;
  • employers, in terms of economic efficiency, negative publicity and possible legal implications.

The problem of sexual harassment has in recent years been acknowledged in a majority of the Member States and has resulted in the enactment or preparation of legislative acts in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain and in collective agreements in some sectors in Spain, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark.

The evaluation report concludes, however, that the Recommendation and the code of practice have not led to the adoption of sufficient measures to ensure a working environment where sexual harassment can be effectively prevented and combated. Since it deals with an affront to the dignity of the individual and an obstacle to productivity, the problem deserves to be tackled at European level.

The evaluation report underlines the need for a global approach:

  • to highlight points of agreement and differences between different national policies;
  • to enable the social partners to play a part in elaborating any form of future action;
  • to work towards the adoption of a binding instrument setting out a common plan to be adapted to each country’s achievements, needs and preferences.

The practical knowledge and experience of the social partners in implementing measures to combat sexual harassment are widely recognised. Their action could take the form of a collective agreement at European level. In the light of their reaction to this communication, the Commission will consider what further action is required.

4) Deadline For Implementation Of The Legislation In The Member States

Not applicable.

5) Date Of Entry Into Force (If Different From The Above)

6) References

Commission communication COM(96) 373 final
Not published in the Official Journal

7) Follow-Up Work

On 19 March 1997, the Commission adopted a communication initiating the secondstage consultation of management and labour on the prevention of sexual harassment at work [SEC(97) 568 final, not published in the Official Journal].

In the first round of consultations, which began in July 1996, replies were received from 17 of the 39 employer and trade union organisations consulted. A majority recognised that sexual harassment is a widespread problem which must be prevented in the workplace for the sake of both the individual and the company.

However, opinions differed on the best ways of dealing with the problem:

  • the employers’ organisations regarded the steps taken at national level as a good basis for further action, in line with the principle of subsidiarity;
  • the trade union organisations considered that very little had been done at national level and that this would also be the case in future if a binding Community instrument was not adopted.

In the consultation document, the Commission presents evidence of the occurrence of sexual harassment and highlights the ineffectiveness of the national legislation, which is primarily repressive and thus provides remedies, by either civil or penal procedures, only for severe isolated cases of sexual harassment. The Commission favours a comprehensive prevention policy, with rules and procedures that are specifically applicable to the context of the workplace.

The proposal on which the Commission seeks the opinions of the social partners covers three points:

  • a legal definition of sexual harassment;
  • a framework of minimum standards setting out the main steps to be taken to prevent harassment;
  • a system of help and advice for victims (with the appointment of counsellors at the workplace).

The Commission has already stated its commitment, should the social partners be unable to conclude an agreement at European level, to seeking other ways of preventing sexual harassment (possibly involving the adoption of a binding legal instrument). However, it will not take a final decision until it has considered the comments received during the consultation procedure.

8) Commission Implementing Measures


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