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Understanding what vicarious liability means for employers

Vicarious liability refers to a situation where someone is held responsible for the actions or omissions of another person. In a workplace context, an employer can be liable for the acts or omissions of its employees, provided it can be shown that they took place in the course of their employment.

Many employers are unaware that they can be liable for a range of actions committed by their employees in the course of their employment - these can include bullying and harassment, violent or discriminatory acts or even libel and breach of copyright. It's also possible to take action against an employer for the behaviour of third parties, such as clients and customers, provided these parties are deemed to be under the control of the employer.

The key question of any case of vicarious liability is whether the employee was acting in a personal capacity, or in the course of their employment. This can often be difficult to determine. Nor does an employer's liability end once the employee leaves the organisation - as the law stands, action can still be taken against an employer even though the person in question no longer works for them.

So what practical steps can employers take to avoid vicarious liability for the acts of their employees? The most important thing that employers can do is to ensure that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such acts or omissions from occurring. For example, maintaining an up-to-date equal opportunities policy and providing anti-discrimination training to staff serve to demonstrate an active commitment on the part of the employer towards combating discriminatory practices in the workplace. This would then reduce the likelihood of an employer being held vicariously liable for any discriminatory acts committed by its employees.

Acas provides training in dealing with bullying and harassment and discrimination in the workplace, as well as guidance on pdf  The Equality Act 2010 – guidance for employers [221kb].

Visit the Acas training and business solutions area for more information.

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