New harassment laws which provide additional protection to anyone subjected to ongoing abuse from customers or clients are likely to lead to an increase in the number of complaints, according to law firm Dundas & Wilson.

Tougher laws will come into force in October, under the Equality Act 2010, extending current provisions – which only cover sexual harassment – to all forms of inappropriate behaviour, including abuse based on race, sexual orientation or religious belief.

The ‘three strikes’ rules, which refers to the number of incidents which can trigger a complaint, puts onto employers the onus of protecting staff from customer or client harassment. There is no time limit on complaints, meaning there could be years between each incident.

Eilidh Wiseman, head of employment at Dundas & Wilson, said organisations with a high proportion of customer-facing employees, such as call centres, should carefully consider their policies around customer harassment.

At the very least there should be formal guidelines on how customer service representatives handle abusive customers.

She said: “In organisations where employees are regularly speaking to customers and having to deal with difficult issues there is a particular risk that they may be subject to some kind of verbal harassment.

”If an employer is aware of this and does nothing about it, there may be grounds for the employee to raise a complaint against the organisation.

“This tends not to be an area in which companies are particularly well-versed, so if there are no policies on harassment then establishing one should be a priority. If there are pre-existing policies, it would be a good idea to have them reviewed since the new legislation is so broad.”

Professional services firms or businesses which organise corporate hospitality days, particularly where alcohol is served, should also re-examine how they deal with the issue.

The only condition which must be satisfied is that the employer was aware of the harassment and did nothing about it – there is no requirement that the comments are made by the same person.

Comments made, even in jest, to staff by clients, could be caught under the new laws if offence is taken. Eilidh Wiseman said this could provide some tricky situations if employees have to take up the issue with important clients.

She said: “This could put a strain on client relationships if an employer has to take steps to stop a client from making inappropriate comments to an employee, even though it may have been intended as a joke.

“Equally, employers should think about this in reverse, so they don’t find themselves with an employee who is subject to a complaint. Things like setting appropriate drinking limits on corporate hospitality events can reduce the likelihood of what could be a very embarrassing and damaging incident.”