Third party harassment

  • Employee Conduct
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Everyone has the right to feel safe in the workplace. But unfortunately, sometimes staff members can face abuse from people outside of their organisation.

Third party harassment towards an employee can affect their mental and physical health. Failure to protect employees from inappropriate behaviour can leave an employer liable to legal claims, hefty fines and lasting reputational damage.

In this guide we'll look at what third party harassment is, your responsibility as an employer, and how to protect staff in the workplace.

What is third party harassment?

Third party harassment is when workers or employees feel intimidated or offended by someone from outside their workplace. An external party is categorised as anyone who is not employed by the same employer as the victim.

This is as opposed to other forms of workplace harassment which can be committed by colleagues or managers.

Some examples of third parties include:

  • Customers: Like in a café or shop. 
  • Clients: Such as in a meeting or when visiting someone for professional purposes.
  • Patients: In a hospital or care home
  • Business contacts: Such as at a conference or meeting.
  • Any other non-directly employed staff members: This includes independent contractors or agency workers.

This list is not extensive so it's important to consider all possible sources of third party harassment. For example, it could include the parents or guardians of children at nurseries or schools.

Discrimination and third party harassment can happen in any workplace, regardless of industry and company size. However, customer service employees are most commonly affected by third party harassment as many have experienced verbal abuse.

What counts as harassment in the workplace?

It mat violate a worker's dignity and can create an intimidating or hostile work environment.

Harassment is often associated with threatening or bullying behaviour but could occur in various forms.

Third party harassment could be verbal abuse or physical threats of violence. It also covers any forms of racist abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace.

Harassment from a third party could range from a one-off rude comment to more serious acts

What does the law say about third party harassment?

While bullying behaviour is not illegal, harassment in the workplace, related to a protected characteristic is. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must protect staff against harassment due to:

The Equality Act 2010, states that employers have a legal duty to protect their employees from all forms of harassment in the workplace. However, there is no law that protects against physical, verbal and, third party unless related to a protected characteristic

Third party sexual harassment

Third party sexual harassment is a form of abuse that effects workers across many industries and sectors. It can affect all workers regardless of age, sex or race.

Although not a legal duty, employers should take reasonable steps to prevent third party sexual harassment.

For example, if a customer makes inappropriate comments about the appearance of young workers in a restaurant or café, this would be considered third party sexual harassment. In this instance the employer would be legally responsible for preventing this from happening as it makes their staff uncomfortable.

What are the effects of third party harassment?

Third party harassment can have a detrimental effect on your business. When employees don't feel safe in their place of work they can struggle with their day to day responsibilities.

When employers breach their duty, it can lead to a number of negative effects. Let's explore them below:

Hostile work environment

A hostile work environment is a workplace where workers feel uncomfortable, scared or intimidated. When staff members are concerned about violent or sexual harassment in the workplace, they can experience mental health issues. This can lead to burnout and low morale.

Low productivity

When employees experience abuse from third party harassers they can quickly become demotivated and unengaged. An unhappy employee is often unproductive as they become less enfranchised with your organisation or business.

Low productivity can lead to employees missing important deadlines. This can have a knock on effect on your business and company profits.

Poor employee relations

As an employer, it's crucial that you have a good relationship with all of your staff. That's why it's important to act when you receive a report of third party harassment.

Failure to support staff following claims of harassment can lead to an employee resenting you and your business. Especially if an employee has been racially or sexually harassed.

High staff turnover

When employees are unhappy in their place of work they are more likely to leave. It's unlikely that a person will stay loyal to a business if there is frequent harassment committed.

High staff turnover can lead to high   and training costs and often mean that employees have to pick up extra work. This can affect the morale of your whole workforce. This is why it is important for employers to correctly handle incidents of harassment.

How to prevent third party harassment in the workplace

As an employer, it's up to you to ensure that staff feel safe and comfortable in their workplace. That's why it's important to protect employees by putting third party harassment provisions in place.

Create a third party harassment policy

The initial step in preventing third party harassment is creating a specific policy. This should contain examples of what is classed as third party harassment in the workplace and steps on reporting.

You should also outline any immediate and appropriate action that needs to be followed after a report is made. All third party harassment experienced by employees must be documented. If an incident involves a crime, then this report can help police to conduct a more thorough investigation.

Provide training on handling third party harassment

Both employees and managers should have relevant training on how to handle third party harassment. This can include how to de-escalate a potentially violent incident and what to do if a situation does become dangerous.

Managers should also know what to do if an employee approaches them following an incident of harassment. Employees can often feel uncomfortable or anxious when reporting, so it's important that the issue is handled sensitively.

Adopt a zero-tolerance approach

Third parties that enter your workplace should be aware of the consequences of harassment. If you receive complaints about a customer, client or other third parties, then it's up to you to deal with the issue.

Adopting a zero-tolerance policy shows that you are an employer that takes circumstances of harassment or discrimination seriously. If you receive a report of harassment, ensure that the incident is documented and action is taken against the perpetrator.

Support staff following incidents of third party harassment

As an employer, it's important that you support your staff following an incident of harassment. Some more serious instances of violent or sexual harassment can leave employees shaken and anxious to return to work.

Offering counselling through an employee assistance programme (EAP) or conducting a phased return to work can help. This can allow them to rebuild their confidence and return to work happy and productive.

Be aware that employees should not be penalised for reporting incidents of harassment by clients, customers or independent contractors.

Conduct employee interviews to assess the problem

You should periodically assess how safe your staff feel when coming into work. All cases of harassment should be reported immediately. However, some staff may worry about the consequences of complaining about unwanted conduct.

Conducting anonymous employee surveys can help you assess if harassment is an issue. You may find that certain groups are dealing with incidents that you are unaware of. For example, the women in your company may be uncomfortable with the way a certain customer speaks to them on a regular. Once you know the extent of the issue you can work to fix it.

Ensure that you avoid victimising anyone who reports harassment. No employees should be penalised for coming forward about unwanted conduct. Doing so could lead to you facing legal claims such as constructive dismissal.

Actions to take following an incident of third party harassment

While an employee should never experience harassment in any form, incidents do still happen. So as an employer, you are liable to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

Firstly you should assess if any of your provisions failed. If your preventative measures aren't fit for purpose then consider how you can improve them. For cases of racial, violent or sexual harassment you may need to involve the police. This is only for serious incidents that you are unable to deal with alone.

Can you be taken to an employment tribunal over third party harassment?

Currently, an employee cannot take you tribunal following an incident of third party harassment. However, this may be set to change as employment law continues to develop and progress.

As an employer, the safety of your staff should be one of your highest priorities. It doesn't matter if harassment is coming from customers, clients or other third parties, you should enact measures to protect staff

Get advice from Peninsula about third party harassment

Unfortunately, harassment in the workplace can happen. Whether from clients, customers, or anyone else who enters your workplace, it's an employer's responsibility to protect their staff.

Fail to do so and you could find yourself facing legal and discrimination claims. This could lead to loss of revenue and damage to business reputation.

Peninsula offers expert advice on how to protect staff from all forms of harassment in the workplace.

We also offer 24/7 HR advice that’s available 365 days a year. Want to find out more? Book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants. Call us on 0844 891 0353.

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