High profile decisions, big awards and a lot of media interest in the details made sexual harassment one of the personnel issues of 1995

High profile decisions, big awards and a lot of media interest in the details made sexual harassment one of the personnel issues of 1995.

Employers have sought to use the get-out clause – "such steps as were reasonably practicable" had been taken to prevent harassment occurring – by updating staff handbooks with a sexual harassment policy and providing proper avenues for complaint. Would-be workplace harassers know they could be disciplined and dismissed.

But what if harassment comes from customers or clients? In that situation, disciplinary action and the threat of dismissal are not options, and unless the assault is serious the police are unlikely to be interested. The last thing employers want is confrontation with clients. But they may have little choice.

Last year the Birmingham industrial tribunal considered a claim by an ex-employee of children's party operators Go Kidz Go. Ms Bourdouane, working at one of the parties, was the object of sexual remarks made by one of the children's parents. The remarks were reported to her manager, who asked Ms Bourdouane to continue with the party. She did so and was subjected to physical sexual assaults.

The manager carried out no investigations and dismissed Ms Bourdouane the next day for poor performance.

She sued Go Kidz Go in the industrial tribunal for sex discrimination and won.

The tribunal said "the decision of the employer to remain entirely passive when faced with a young and female employee who was obviously extremely upset was one which was directly related to her sex", and that there could be "no justification…for an employer to decide either that he is too busy or the matter might cause unwelcome publicity, as justification not to proceed to take some steps to establish what happened".

The tribunal felt the manager should have carried out an investigation, at least to identify the alleged harasser. He failed to do so because of the nature of the complaint and the fact the complainant was female, and was therefore guilty of direct sex discrimination.

Employers who put client goodwill before the welfare of their workers can expect a rough ride.