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October 30 2018
By Sam Murray-Hinde

Sam is a Partner in the Employment Team at legal firm Howard Kennedy. More details are here


Protecting staff from disputes

All employers have a duty to keep their staff safe at work – and that includes protecting them from customer abuse

From Ryanair flights to tram rides, most forms of transport have had their viral moment – sadly, most seem to involve badly-behaved and abusive passengers.  

And as winter – and the inevitable bad-weather delays – sets in, the most even-keeled traveller can find their temper fraying a little.

Frontline staff often bear the brunt of dealing with these tricky situations. But what do employers need to do to protect staff at risk of customer abuse – and can employers end up being liable for altercations between staff and customers?

Duty of care

Employers have a general duty to provide a safe workplace and safe systems of work.

There are steps that employers can take to help protect their employees

This duty extends to protecting staff against the risk of physical or psychological harm caused by third parties, including customers.

Employees who suffer harm as a result of an employer's failure to comply with this duty can bring a personal injury claim against their employer, so from a legal, reputational and employee relations perspective it's important to get this right. 

The Health and Safety Executive suggests some steps that employers can take to reduce the risk of abusive or violent behaviour by customers. 

These include ensuring adequate staffing levels and training frontline staff in how to defuse tense situations.  

Keep staff informed

In the transport context, it's sensible to ensure that all staff are fully briefed on what to do to protect their own safety (such as remaining in the cab), on new timetables, any real-time delays and on how strikes or extreme weather are being handled.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers were liable for third party harassment of staff –where the harassment related to a protected characteristic – on a "three strikes and you're out" basis, but this was repealed in 2013. 

However, the #MeToo campaign and concerns about the prevalence of workplace harassment has led to calls for this protection to be reinstated. And an employer that fails to treat an incident of, for example, racist harassment could find itself facing a discrimination claim anyway. 

Put in policies

Regardless of the legal position, it's certainly better for employee relations to have clear policies for dealing with offensive customer behaviour.

Another good reason for having robust policies in place is that if an incident escalates and an employee assaults or verbally abuses a customer, the employer is almost certain to be vicariously liable. 

The fact that employers don't generally authorise assaults on customers is irrelevant here – employers are liable for unlawful or criminal acts by their employees, and other workers, which are closely connected with employment. 

Morrisons recently discovered this to its cost when the Court of Appeal held it liable for its employees’ unlawful disclosure of personal information relating to nearly 100,000 staff members. This is an area where prevention is definitely better than cure.   



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