Third party harassment in the workplace.

You’ve recently reviewed your policies and procedures and a new comprehensive staff handbook has been put on the intranet. All your staff have received equal opportunities training and know what amounts to harassment. But how do you deal with harassment emanating from third parties, such as agency workers, contractors or members of the public?

The Equality Act 2010 had brought in new provisions which made employers liable in certain circumstances for third party harassment. The repeal of these provisions as of 1 October 2013 will be largely welcomed by employers after the Government recognised that the rules are not effective in practice and add an extra burden on businesses, especially as third parties can be difficult, or indeed impossible, to control.

However, this change doesn’t mean employers don’t have a duty to protect employees – an employer may still be liable for unlawful discrimination if it fails to take proactive steps to deal with third party harassment of its staff once such harassment has been brought to its attention.
It’s therefore important for employers to continue to take reasonable steps to protect their staff from harassment by third parties, including having a policy and drawing it publicly to the attention of those with whom staff come into contact.

If an employee resigns as a result of third party harassment, there may also be cause for a constructive unfair dismissal claim as they could argue that the failure to protect them from harassment was a fundamental breach of their contract of employment and they were forced to quit.

By abolishing the third party harassment law, although the government is cutting red tape for businesses to some degree, it’s vital for employers to remember there are other legal routes which employees can take if they feel they have been harassed by a third party.

[Certain parts of this article were first published by CIPD’s HR Inform in their September 2013 newsletter (behind a pay wall)].

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