Employers must provide a safe working environment for their staff, including protecting them from the bad behaviour of customers, a legal expert has said.
The warning follows allegations of sexual harassment towards female hostesses working at a private event at the Dorchester, in Park Lane, which was attended by undercover journalists from TheFinancial Times.
The 130 hostesses had not been employed directly by the five-AA-star hotel but supplied through an agency specifically for the men-only event hosted by the Presidents Club, which has since been disbanded.
The Dorchester has said it is "deeply concerned" by the allegations, which have seen many more women come forward to suggest that sexual harassment is common within the industry.
As claims mounted the union Unite launched a study of hospitality workers as part of its #NotOnTheMenu campaign, with preliminary findings suggesting nine in 10 workers have experienced sexual harassment at work.
Karen Mortenson, a senior associate in the employment team at law firm Howard Kennedy, outlined the responsibilities of an employer.
She said: "Employers must provide a safe workplace for their staff. This includes protecting employees from bad behaviour, be that by colleagues or customers.
"The Equality Act previously included express provisions to protect staff from third-party harassment. These were repealed in 2013, but if [for example] a waitress was harassed by a customer, and the restaurant did nothing about it, they might still successfully argue that they had been discriminated against."
Mortenson explained that employers can protect themselves by demonstrating that all reasonable steps were taken to prevent the act, or type of act, occurring.
Steps may include having a written anti-harassment policy and providing staff training, notifying customers that harassing employees is unlawful and will not be tolerated as well as encouraging staff to report instances of harassment and taking action.
Following the revelations last week a spokesperson for the Dorchester said: "We do not tolerate any form of harassment as expressed in our Code of Conduct and we do not support any events that appear to condone any form of misconduct. We will be reviewing our events contracts going forward to reinforce our guidelines for outside contributors and suppliers, and will do our utmost to prevent unacceptable behaviour on our premises."
Next week The Caterer will feature in-depth analysis of the action required by employers to ensure their staff are protected.
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