Sued by your own staff - if customers abuse them?

That's the prospect facing business owners as a result of new equality legislation, a law firm suggests.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
If employers didn't have enough red tape to complain about at the moment, things may be about to get worse in October, when the new Equality Act 2010 kicks in. According to one law firm, the new legislation will leave companies open to litigation from their own staff if they don't do enough to protect them from customer abuse - and naturally, the precise meaning of 'enough' in this context will be open to interpretation. OK, so employers should be doing their utmost to look after their staff anyway. But we imagine a few business owners will be nervous about being liable for their customers' behaviour as well as their own - since it's a lot harder to control...

According to lawyers EMW Picton Howell, the new laws could be a particular problem for the likes of pub and bar owners - how are they supposed to stop punters being generally obnoxious and saying inappropriate things to their barmaid (or barman, for that matter), given that banning booze isn't really an option? Then there are those involved in public transport, the NHS, local authorities, social housing – any business, in fact, where employees come into contact from time to time with people who are likely to get irate. Which, when you think about it, applies to almost everyone. And with no cap on the size of discrimination payouts, that could leave companies facing a very large bill.

The new law will apparently operate on a ‘three strikes’ basis, so staff will be able to take action after just three incidents - even if they’re from separate customers. So simply banning particular troublemakers might not necessariy solve the problem, since others might come along and pick up where the last idiot left off. In fact, EMW argues, you may not be safe unless you take further action - it suggests putting up a sign warning customers not to abuse your staff (like people think it's perfectly acceptable otherwise) or even hiring extra security to protect them.

Now we're all in favour of anti-discrimination legislation. And many businesses will already see it as their responsibility to try and protect their staff from abuse, without having to be told as much by the EU. But it's important that new laws don't leave certain kinds of businesses exposed to claims from unscrupulous staff in search of a juicy pay-out; so we hope the courts are sensible in deciding to what lengths an employer can reasonably be expected to go. Because otherwise, this will be a new ambulance to chase for some of EMW's less enlightened brethren. We can see the ad now: 'Have you been repeatedly insulted at your work and it wasn't your fault? You might be entitled to sue the living daylights out of your employer...'

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