Hospitality operators will be under the spotlight during the Christmas party season as new discrimination laws covering the behaviour of third parties face their first real test, legal experts have warned.

Under the 2008 amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), introduced in April, businesses that employ staff in positions where they interact with customers can be liable if those customers harass their staff. That harassment could include sexual banter or racist jokes.

As a result, operators which hire out their premises for corporate functions will need to protect themselves from exposure to tribunal claims, warned Julian Yew, head of the hotel and leisure group at law firm Wedlake Bell.

“Venue operators – be they hotels, bars, restaurants, clubs and event halls – now have a stricter obligation to protect their staff from verbal and physical harassment,” he said. “This means that businesses might have to pick up the bill for drunken, out-of-control behaviour by members of their staff or the actions of comedians and entertainers hired for the event.”

Yew urged hotel and restaurant managers to minimise the risk by reiterating their policy on discrimination and equal opportunities to anyone wishing to hire their facilities for a function.

The updated laws mean that if an employee has complained twice that they have been sexually harassed by a third party (client, customer, supplier or contractor), and the employer has not taken reasonable steps to protect them beforehand, the employer is vicariously liable for harassment. The two incidents need not be perpetrated by the same third party.

Published on, 14 October 2008