We none of us want or need abusive customers/clients but, unfortunately, it happens from time to time. If abuse comes from an internal source it is relatively easy to deal with but if the abuse comes from a third party such as a client or customer, the situation can be more complex.
However, employers must do everything reasonable and practical to protect their staff from abuse in the workplace, whether that is in an office, a retail outlet or on site if your staff are working in a client’s home, garden or on a building site. Sadly, those working in the hospitality and care sectors seem to be particularly targeted for abuse.
The Health & Safety at Work Act requires that employers provide a safe workplace and employers have a common law duty of care to their employees. That means that employers must take reasonable steps to ensure staff are kept safe from foreseeable risk. Effectively that means your risk assessments should identify the risk to employees of abuse and set out what you do to eliminate – or at least control – that risk.
What might happen if you fail to deal with an abusive situation? In the short term, an increase in sickness absence is a likely outcome. Abusive clients/customers can have a profound impact on your employees’ mental health and wellbeing perhaps even making them frightened to come to work. Ultimately, any long-term ill health sustained could lead to a personal injury claim.
A failure to support your staff can also affect your reputation as an employer which, in turn, will reduce the number and quality of applicants at recruitment – bad news travels fast!
In the longer term, an employee might resign and claim constructive dismissal if they have the requisite two years’ continuous service. A successful claim would need the individual to show a pattern of abuse about which you had failed to act. That would amount to a fundamental breach of contract. If you are to successfully defend such a claim you would need to show the policies and procedures you have in place to manage third party abuse.
Some insurers may take a very dim view of any failure to identify the risk which may affect any claim you might want to make.
Initially the Equality Act 2010 required employers to protect their staff from third party acts of harassment relating to protected characteristics, but that element was later repealed. However, the government is now set to reintroduce specific workplace protections against third party harassment relating to protected characteristics, a move that will be welcomed in many quarters.
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