Recent events have shown how quickly a reputation can be thrown into disarray with comments made by employees.

Whether it is intimate revelations or staff faux pas, both lead to trial by media and public judgement and are a fear and reality for many high-profile individuals.

This has never been more apparent than the prolonged exchange that took place between Lady Hussey and Ngozi Fulani at a work-focussed event at Buckingham Palace which allegedly included Lady Hussey stating “I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from. When did you first come here? ” An exchange that appears to have tipped the balance between benign curiosity and harassment.

At best it has been reported as a naïve misjudgement on the part of Lady Hussey and at worst, a sign of institutional racism within the palace.

Whatever your thoughts are on the recent events, it comes as a stark reminder to  organisations or households who employ domestic staff that having appropriate policies in place is vital to avoid a similar situation or inappropriate comments from happening.

Quite apart from reputational damage, an organisation may lay themselves open to claims of discrimination if they treat a person less favourably because of their race or if they engaged in unwanted conduct which had the purpose or effect of violating the individual’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. Furthermore, an organisation can be held “vicariously liable” for discrimination or harassment committed by their agent or employee in the course of employment or whilst providing a service, even if the principal themselves are unaware of the acts.

It is likely, based on the accounts published that in ordinary circumstances Ms Fulani may be able to pursue a claim of harassment against her host organisation. Faced with similar facts, any household employer (and/or any of their employees) could find themselves liable for claims of race discrimination and harassment.

The law imposes strict liability on employers in order to encourage them to maintain standards of good practice by their employees. It is therefore important for employers to understand what steps they can take to protect themselves from such claims.

Top protection tips:

Assess the culture of your organisation to make certain it is not discriminatory. Ensure an inclusive culture is enforced at all levels throughout the organisation such that you can clearly show that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent your employee committing a discriminatory act. You can do this by:

  1. Have clear guidelines in the employment contract and implementing relevant policies such as equal opportunities, diversity equity & inclusion policy and an anti-harassment and bullying policy and regularly reviewing those policies;
  2. Make all employees aware of the policies and their implications;
  3. Provide meaningful training to all staff on equal opportunities and discrimination; not simply a box-ticking exercise. Address issues that are known to exist in the workplace and enable employees to apply what they have learned;
  4. Provide additional training to managers and supervisors in identifying and handling equal opportunities and harassment issues;
  5. Act on any reasonable initiatives proposed by employees to improve relations and take steps to deal effectively with complaints, including taking appropriate disciplinary action.

It is advisable to keep a paper trail of the above steps.

High profile employers must be mindful that due to the public’s insatiable interest in such matters, their reputation hangs in a delicate balance. They would be well advised to seek advice on how best to implement the above steps to protect their reputation and protect themselves from potential claims.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.