When you can be held legally responsible for someone else’s unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation

As an employer, you are legally responsible for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by workers who are employed by you in the course of their employment.

You are also legally responsible as the ‘principal’ for the acts of your agents done with your authority. Your agent is someone you have instructed to do something on your behalf, but who is not employed by you.  It does not matter whether you have a formal contract with them.

As long as:

  • the worker was acting in the course of their employment – in other words, while they were doing their job, or
  • your agent was acting within the general scope of your authority – in other words, while they were carrying out your instructions
  • it does not matter whether or not you:
  • knew about or
  • approved of

what the worker or agent did. 

For example:

A shopkeeper goes abroad for three months and leaves a worker employed by him in charge of the shop. This employee harasses a colleague with a learning disability, by constantly criticising how they do their work. The worker leaves the job as a result of this unwanted conduct. This could amount to harassment related to disability and the shopkeeper could be responsible for the actions of the worker.

An employer engages a financial consultant to act on their behalf in dealing with their finances internally and with external bodies, using the employer’s headed notepaper. While working on the accounts, the consultant sexually harasses an accounts assistant. The consultant would probably be considered an agent of the employer and the employer is likely to be responsible for the harassment.

However, you will not be held legally responsible if you can show that:

  • you took all reasonable steps to prevent a worker employed by you acting unlawfully
  • an agent acted outside the scope of your authority (in other words, that they did something so different from what you asked them to do that they could no longer be thought of as acting on your behalf).

For more information

Last Updated: 30 Dec 2014