North East employers need to ensure their staff are able to deal with members of the public in the right way, or risk facing the consequences when things go wrong.
That’s the view of Paul McGowan, founder and principal solicitor of specialist North East employment law firm Collingwood Legal, after a landmark legal decision found supermarket Morrison’s ‘vicariously liable’ for an assault by one of its staff on a customer.
And he is advising regional firms in customer-facing industries such as retail, leisure and hospitality that the broad definition being applied to this legal term makes it increasingly likely that the blame for any problems between misbehaving staff and customers could land on their doorsteps.
The Supreme Court judgement was made against Morrison’s after an employee at one of its petrol stations responded to a customer request with foul and abusive language before following him outside and physically assaulting him.
Morrison’s argued that there was not a sufficiently close connection between what the employee was employed to do and assaulting a customer, but the Court disagreed and ruled against them.
Paul McGowan says: “There are two stages to consider in cases like this – can the relationship between the wrongdoer and the employer give rise to vicarious liability, and is there a sufficiently close connection between the position in which the employee is employed and the employee’s wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable.
“While Morrison’s clearly wouldn’t have condoned what their employee did, the Supreme Court held that they had entrusted their employee to deal with members of the public and it was therefore appropriate that they should be liable for his abuse of trust.”
“The broad approach that is being taken by the courts to judging the connection between misbehaving staff and their employers can leave businesses
exposed in cases of this sort, and it’s essential that they act in advance to do everything they can to avoid becoming subject to such problems.”
Paul McGowan is recommending that regional employers ensure their staff training programmes are both comprehensive and up to date, and that suitable policies are both in place and in force that will go as far as possible towards helping to prevent these sort of issues arising.
He continues: “Employers can’t permanently be on hand to prevent issues arising, nor can they know when something unpredictably is going to happen, but they can take steps now to minimise the chances that they will be held liable if problems occur in the future.
“Giving staff the right kind of training is just the start of showing that you’ve taken all reasonable steps to prevent any wrongdoing by them.
“Where interacting with the public is an integral part of their day-to-day role, your employees should all be fully aware and trained on the processes you’ve put in place for dealing with customer complaints or when faced with a challenging situation.
“Failure to do this properly could open North East employers up to both expensive legal actions and substantial reputational damage, both of which could prove costly and harmful to their operations over the long-term.”