Employers must ensure protection from attacks

Strategies to deal with staff facing violence at work from members of the
public or co-workers are now key to your company’s reputation and complying
with the law

One point three million violent attacks were committed on workers in England
and Wales over a 12-month period, according to a recent survey.

Bad behaviour from the public and colleagues can be frightening and intimidating.
Employers need to have strategies in place to govern reactions to assaults on
staff and deal with concerns over harassment and bullying.

Employers have obligations to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work
of employees so far as is reasonably practicable and must assess the risks and
make arrangements for their health and safety.

Ealing Borough Council recently prosecuted KFC for failing to take the
necessary action to protect its staff from violent attacks.

Fear of prosecution should not be the sole reason to act in such cases,
however. Physical and psychological harm can be suffered and might result in
employee absence. Such attacks can also damage business reputations.

An employer will also want to guard against the possibility of the employee
making a claim for personal injury or discrimination suffered in the workplace
or for constructive unfair dismissal.

Harassment

If someone not actually employed by you physically assaults an employee the
police should always be called. Where the behaviour falls short of a physical
attack, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 can be used to stop a harasser.
An employer can obtain an injunction to prevent a harasser from continuing.

Each act committed by the harasser will have to be looked at to determine
whether it forms part of a course of conduct and amounts to harassment. Once
obtained, if an injunction is breached the harasser can be sent to prison or
fined.

The results can be worthwhile. Employees can see the employer is supportive
which may be hugely important.

Employers can also be found guilty of discrimination if they allow
non-employees to bully or harass their staff by reason of their disability,
race or sex. Burton and Rhule v De Vere Hotels, 1996, IRLR 596 decided that,
not only can an employer be liable if its own staff harassed other staff, it
can be liable if it fails to prevent outsiders from harassing its staff/ making
discriminatory comments. Employers can also be liable if the harassment is in a
context connected with work.

Bullying

Where both the harasser and victim are employed by the same employer, the
situation is difficult not least because the employer has a duty to maintain
the trust and confidence of all employees – both the person being harassed and
one allegedly committing the harassment.

Employers should comply with their disciplinary policy and any bullying and
harassment or dignity at work policy. They should hold an investigation which
must be seen to be fair to all.

Once the investigation is complete, the harasser may need to be warned or
even dismissed. The victim may doubt the employer’s commitment to them if the
harasser is not dealt with appropriately, may resign and claim constructive
unfair dismissal.

The risks of harassment are many and serious, and the stakes are high. More
responsibility is being placed on employers to protect workers from violent
attacks and harassment as well as unacceptable behaviour. Where a complaint is
made employers should have procedures in place to investigate and take action –
otherwise employers could be faced with criminal, civil or employment
proceedings, or all three.

By Danielle Kingdon, employment partner, and health & safety
associate Louise Thomas at Osborne Clarke

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