Discrimination and the law

When an employer could be held responsible for an employee’s actions

If an employee discriminates against someone else, by law their employer could also be held responsible. This is known as 'vicarious liability'.

Whether the employee and employer are both held responsible depends on whether the discrimination is linked to the employee's work. The law describes this relationship as 'acting in the course of employment'. The discrimination could happen at work or outside the workplace, for example at a work party, or through social media that's linked to work.

Bill, a shop assistant, makes a negative comment to someone they work with about their race. Bill's employer could also be held responsible for that discrimination. 

An employer might not be held responsible if an employment tribunal decides they took all reasonable steps to try to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation by staff. 

James and Opeyemi both work as sales staff. As with all staff, the company annually trains and tests James on equality, diversity and discrimination. Last year, the company ran an anti-bullying campaign across all its stores.
James sends Opeyemi a string of offensive and sexually suggestive emails at work. After Opeyemi complains about this to their line manager, the company immediately opens an investigation into the matter and suspends James's access to their email account.
The investigation leads to James being disciplined with a final written warning. James is also sent on refresher equality training.
If Opeyemi chooses to make a claim to an employment tribunal, the employer's actions may help show it took 'all reasonable steps' to stop discrimination from happening.

Vicarious liability can be a complicated area. If you have questions you can speak to an Acas adviser.

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