Experts have warned an audience of business leaders that they are vicariously liable for their employees’ actions under the new Discrimination (Jersey) Law 2013 and therefore staff training on the subject is an absolute must.  

Over 130 owners, managers and HR professionals from businesses of all sizes and sectors heard from a panel of experts who warned them of the potential risks their own employees could pose at a joint Law At Work and Rossborough breakfast briefing last week.  The briefing was organised to educate businesses and charities about the anti-discrimination law and how they can protect themselves. In September 2014 this new law will come into force in Jersey starting with protection from race discrimination.

During the breakfast briefing, the audience heard from Law At Work’s Technical Director, Sharon Peacock, who has worked on employment law and discrimination matters in London and Paris. She was joined by Malcolm Ferey from the Jersey Citizen’s Advice Bureau, and Patricia Rowan from the Jersey Advisory and Conciliation Service who each provided their perspective into the new law and what it means to Jersey businesses and employers. They presented ‘real-life cases, community mediation and gave an insight into the legislation which is to come. Attendees also heard from a senior management liability underwriter from Rossborough’s insurance partner, AXA Insurance, who has first-hand knowledge of the types of issues faced in the UK, which could arise locally.  

Businesses need to be aware that the actions of any one of their employees could trigger a claim against the company, the directors and managers or the employee him/herself.  If an employee is found to have discriminated either through direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, victimisation or harassment, a complaint could be filed against both the employer and employee.  These claims could involve the business being sued for up to £10,000 but if the business can prove that it has taken reasonable steps to prevent such discriminatory treatment, it may be the individual employee, who committed the discriminatory act, who ends up funding litigation or footing the bill if compensation is awarded, as well as branded racist.  “It really is very unforgiving” said Mrs Peacock, “there is only one narrow defence and very specific exceptions. The only real option for most is to   take precautions now – and train or refresh training, if necessary – to pre-empt disputes.” said Mrs Peacock, “After all, who wants to risk employing or be employed by a perpetrator of race discrimination?”  

Attendees of the event received a mini-master class on the law and learned about what they need to do in practice before the law comes into force; what will happen if an employment or non-work related claim comes in; and how to protect themselves from liability.  

Adam Wickens, senior management liability underwriter at AXA Insurance UK plc explained what has happened in the UK, the types of claims and the amounts of compensation awarded in certain circumstances. “With constantly changing employment legislation and significant and potentially financially catastrophic exposure that employers have, we feel that now more than ever the correct cover and advice is needed. Even if there is no wrong doing on the part of the business or its employees, there could still be a claim to fight, which costs money in fees and that’s where the insurance can be of great benefit.”  

The new anti-discrimination law is much wider than generally understood. It extends beyond the workplace to education, housing and the provision of goods and services. In the employment field, protection starts before the employment relationship has begun and prevails after it finishes. It covers perceived as well as the actual race of the victim, and captures all perpetrators even those over whom businesses have limited control.

Further new laws relating to sex discrimination and family friendly rights are due to be introduced in 2015, and will be followed by age and disability discrimination laws.