Harassment of employees by non-employees

This month we continue with our series of updates in relation to the Equality Act 2010 by informing you how the law has been extended in relation to harassment of employees.

Employers will no doubt appreciate that it is unlawful to discriminate against employees on the grounds of the “protected characteristics” namely sex, pregnancy and maternity, age, disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and marriage and civil partnership.

One way that discrimination can occur in an employment context is harassment.
Harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”. Harassment applies to all protected characteristics except for pregnancy and maternity and marriage and civil partnership.

You may recall from our previous update on the new disability discrimination regime that there are now two new strands of discrimination i.e. discrimination by perception and discrimination by association. Hence, employees can now complain of behaviour that they find offensive even if it is not directed at them and if they do not possess the relevant protected characteristic themselves.

However, there is also a particular type of harassment that employers may not always appreciate that they are liable for, that is, harassment by non-employees i.e. third party harassment. Before the Equality Act 2010 came into force on 1st October 2010, third party harassment was already prohibited on grounds of sex but it has now been extended to cover age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation.

Employers are now potentially liable for harassment of their employees by third parties who are not employed by them e.g. customers or clients. If employers are aware of third party harassment then they must take reasonable steps to prevent it from recurring.

This article was written by Lara Murray a Solicitor in our Employment Department.