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Prepare to be sued

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New law means employers to be sued for bad behaviour from their customers

damages – including for injury to feelings and loss of earnings

Staff able
to take action against employers after three incidents – even if harassment involves
three different customers

A new law
means that employers could be sued by their staff if they suffer discrimination
from customers, warns EMW Picton Howell, the commercial law firm. The new
Equality Act 2010, due to come into force on October 1 2010, will enable staff
to seek damages from employers who fail to take reasonable steps to protect
them from any form of discrimination by a third party such as a customer.

EMW Picton
Howell explains that this is a dramatic extension of a law introduced in 2008
by Harriet Harman that meant employers could be liable if their staff
encountered discrimination on the grounds of sex. The new law will cover
discrimination on the basis of race, age, religion, disability and sexual
orientation as well.

Jon Taylor,
Head of Employment at EMW Picton Howell, comments: “This could cause real
problems for employers in pubs, bars and restaurants where behaviour from
clients can sometimes be pretty poor.” “What a customer thinks is friendly
banter a staff member could easily consider discrimination.”

transport, the NHS, local authorities and the social housing sector can also be
flashpoints where customer anger can lead to abuse of and discrimination
against staff.” “The legislation could present real problems as it can be seen
as expecting employers to exert quite a high level of control over their
customers’ behaviour.”

businesses, in particular, may find it harder to cope.” “When new classes of
discrimination are banned in the workplace it takes a couple of years for
claims to feed through and to cause a real problem for employers – we expect
this legislation to follow a similar trend.”

EMW Picton
Howell says that there is no limit on damage awards against employers for
discrimination claims. Damages could include loss of earnings and “injury to
feelings”.Jon Taylor says that “injury to feelings” awards alone can to run to
several thousand pounds with awards in the most serious cases getting up
towards £30,000, meaning companies will have to take the matter seriously.

EMW Picton
Howell points out that there only need to be three instances of discrimination
– and this can be from a different customer on each occasion – before a member
of staff can launch a claim against their employer.

Jon Taylor: “Banning a customer, who harassed a member of staff, for life would
not necessarily be enough. Employers may have to take more overt action, such
as putting up signs warning that the harassment of staff is not tolerated, or
employing extra security guards.”

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