New rules prohibiting harassment in the workplace will increase the onus on businesses to make employees aware that such behaviour is unlawful, Sarah Pugh, employment lawyer at Birmingham solicitors Needham & James, has warned.
She says that employers should be considering reviewing their policies and practices in relation to harassment, and make sure these have been effectively communicated to staff.
Otherwise, they may unwittingly end up ' vicariously liable' for an unwelcome or hostile action by an employee.
The new regulations which are still in draft but due to come into force on October 1, place employers' obligations in relation to workplace harassment on a statutory footing, clarifying current UK case law and codifying what already happens in employment tribunals.
The changes are set out in the amendments to the Equal Treatment Directive 76/207, which extends the scope of the 1976 Directive and will be incorporated in the Sex Discrimination Act.
The aim is to make UK law consistent and in line with that of the EU. If the amended Directive is correctly implemented, the new regime widens the scope for employees to bring a claim, and put the onus on employers to prove that they have taken every possible step to discourage and prevent any form of harassment in the workplace.
Ms Pugh said: "Most of the proposed amendments to the SDA appear fairly modest, but the devil will be in the detail.
"The burden to prohibit harassment and discrimination will clearly rest with employers, who will need to ensure that they can demonstrate best practice in the event of any potential claim."
In their draft form, the regulations distinguish between harassment on the ground of sex, which need not be of a sexual nature, and sexual harassment.
"The risk for employers is that an innocent or inadvertent action by a member of staff could result in a claim for harassment."