Most successful companies recognise the importance of their staff forging strong personal relationships with their colleagues. This helps to create a harmonious working environment and potentially increases productivity and growth. However, as with any relationship, fall outs can occur which may even lead to physical altercations – but where does the employer stand legally in these cases?

Employers can be found vicariously liable for an assault where:

  • An employee inflicts violence on a colleague – or another person while on work time
  • There’s a connection between the employer and the wrongdoer
  • There’s a sufficiently close connection between the violence and the wrongdoer’s employment

Examples of factors which can be used to determine a sufficiently close connection include:

  • Violence that takes place whilst acting on employer instructions
  • Undertaking duties where a clear likelihood of confrontation may occur
  • A violent act that takes place in uniform and/or on work premises

If there’s a sufficiently close connection, the employer will be held responsible for the assault and will be liable to the victim for damages.

Steps an employer can take to limit liability

Thankfully, violence at work is rare, but the employer must be prepared for that eventuality and take steps to limit the risk of liability. Robust disciplinary procedures and policies that begin with documentation of misconduct are the foundations of effective practice.

It’s important that your procedure covers and documents:

  • Levels of misdemeanour – misconduct, serious misconduct, or gross misconduct
  • Location of the incident or incidents
  • The particular type of business involved
  • Whether it contravenes health and safety regulations

Where employers have had to deal with numerous issues of violence among colleagues before, it’s prudent to include an anti-violence policy, but this is probably unnecessary for most businesses.

Keep your workforce informed

Employers should ensure that any anti-violence clauses in policies are communicated to all staff, regardless of their position. It may also be appropriate to produce a reminder of rules surrounding violence when the company is taking part in high-risk activities such as:

  • Christmas parties
  • Activity days

As soon as the employer is aware of physical violence taking place between members of staff, they need to take action. Taking a hard line will cut down the likelihood of future violence and remove the potential for future liability, as employees become aware this will not be tolerated.

The proper response can then be initiated in line with your disciplinary procedure, ensuring that any formal action is fair and reasonable in all the circumstances.