HOTELIERS, restaurateurs and landlords are facing a potential legal minefield after new sex discrimination laws made them liable for the behaviour of customers.
The new laws mean that the liability for loud sexist jokes or banter among punters now rests with the licensee, as well as facing the rap if punters eye-up barmaids, waitresses or front-of-house staff.
The new regulations mean that staff can sue their boss if a customer calls them ‘love’ or if they overhear or are the subject of sexist banter.
Bosses who fail to protect their staff from sexual harassment by customers can face unlimited compensation claims.
Restaurant managers or hoteliers risk action if staff take issue with backchat from diners or guests asking for a date.
Businesses will need to show they have tried to clamp down on sexual harassment of workers by customers if they are to guard against the risk of compensation claims, according to leading law firms.
They advise that pub landlords should be asked to put up signs telling drinkers that “harassment is not tolerated”.
They advised pub operators to put up warning notices telling drinkers that "harassment is not tolerated".
The regulations were pushed through by Women and Equalities Minister Harriet Harman, who has powers under European legislation to amend discrimination law.
Miss Harman has used a statutory instrument that does not require a division or debate in Parliament.
It is estimated that adhering to the new rules is likely to cost "micro and small" businesses more than £10million, according to an assessment by the Government Equalities Office.
The new laws - which come into force this Sunday – will have sweeping implications for the hospitality sector.
Stuart Chamberlain, an employment law specialist at Consult GEE, told the Daily Mail: "Employers may feel uncomfortable about confronting clients but they need to be aware that failing to take action could result in a claim for compensation, including for injury to feelings.
"Shops, bars or gyms may be able to put up notices explaining that harassment of staff is not tolerated by the management.
"However, professional services companies who encourage staff to socialise with clients may find it far more difficult to convey that message."
The rules allow tribunals to award unlimited damages for injury to feelings if a case is proved.
The burden of proof will lie with employers. There will be no need for workers to show their employer allowed harassment to happen - instead, managers must demonstrate that they were not at fault.
Workers must show they suffered three incidents of harassment before they can make a claim. The incidents can involve different customers, so it will not be enough for a bar manager to ban just one difficult drinker.
Yet there remains concern as to how bosses can manage the jobs of keeping customers under control as well as keeping the business running smoothly.
Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "It really is unfair to employers to expect them to vouch for every customer, including those who aren`t regulars.
"Landlords will have to sit around trying to listen in on customers` conversations, rather than having any rest period or break.
"We would hope that common sense would prevail without the need for heavy-handed legislation that leaves employers immensely worried.
"Pubs are mostly well run in this country and landlords know when to step in and calm things down. They should be trusted to do so."
A spokesman for the Government’s Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will police the new laws, said: "When employers know that harassment is going on they are in a position to do something about it."
The commission said the regulations are aimed at dealing with the "particular problem" of harassment in the hotel and restaurant trade, which employs 670,000 women.