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What does ‘duty of care’ mean?


Duty of care means having legal and moral obligations to your clients and employees

Personal relationships can be hard work. All that making sure the other person’s all right and not feeling neglected is time-consuming. Especially if they’re a bit needy.

More often than not, you have to work at it. And if things start going wrong, a bunch of flowers from the local petrol station won’t usually be enough to patch things up.

The same can be said of your professional relationships. They need working at too, to make sure your clients stay feeling loved (and keep paying their invoices).

And there’s more. Because in this kind of relationship, you have something called a ‘duty of care’ to your clients – both legally and morally. It makes it serious from the outset and means there can be more dramatic consequences than a broken heart if you mess up.

What is duty of care?

Any professional person’s duty of care is basically the same. Loosely defined, it’s your responsibility not to cause damage to others that could reasonably be foreseen and avoided.

Your level of expertise in your area of work is deemed to be higher than that of the average guy in the street. It’s the reason your client hired you in the first place.

So, if things don’t go quite according to plan and your professional service fails to deliver what your client wants or expects, you could be sued for damages – because of your breach of duty of care. It’s basically an accusation you’ve been negligent.

If that happens, you'll need quite a lot more than a box of chocolates and a sheepish grin to make it all go away. Best to treat yourself to a professional indemnity insurance policy, then.

It protects you by paying for a legal expert to fight your corner and also covers any compensation due. It’ll see you through even the messiest of divorces from a client.

What does duty of care mean for your staff?

If you’ve got employees, you also have a moral and legal duty of care to them. That means you need to take good care of them. And it’s the same if they’re full-time, part-time, temporary or even voluntary.

Not convinced you need to go that extra mile? Well, take a look at the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) info on employers’ responsibilities. It has quite a lot to say on the subject of protecting the physical and mental wellbeing of your staff.

Plus, there’s another side to safeguarding your employees’ welfare that the HSE is very keen on. So keen, in fact, that it makes it a legal necessity, whether you’ve got just one member of staff or one hundred.

It's called employers’ liability insurance (EL) and it protects both your employees and your business. It covers your legal costs and any compensation due if someone claims they were injured or made ill by working for you. So, it’s a two-way thing.

If you don’t have EL when you should have and you’re caught out by the HSE, they can fine you. That’s a meaty £2,500 for each day you were meant to have EL but didn’t and a bonus £1,000 for not displaying the required certificate. Ouch.

How do you fulfil your duty of care?

Honouring your duty of care takes a little planning, but reaps rewards. It leads to better relationships all round, both with your clients and your staff. It also puts your business in a stronger position overall.

Where clients are concerned, setting some ground rules for the relationship from the get-go sets it on the right road. You don’t have to go overboard with the TLC; it’s more the Ts & Cs that matter:

  • Be clear on what your client expects from you – and what you can deliver.
  • Have written terms and conditions and use written contracts.
  • Don’t cheat. Or cut corners.
  • Keep notes, document changes and get them agreed (signed off).
  • Never buy your clients flowers from the local petrol station.

When it comes to your staff, treating them well takes many forms. You can probably stop short of a full-blown candlelit dinner, but safety at work is a legal requirement. And making sure they’re as content as possible is a no-brainer for productivity.

Here are some tips:

  • Know the health and safety laws
  • Do a proper risk assessment of your workplace
  • Make sure any equipment is fit-for-purpose and regularly serviced
  • Provide proper training for staff
  • Establish recognised communication channels for staff to report any concerns.

Love on the rocks

Don’t forget, relationships can be stormy. But having some sort of structure for how you deal with your clients and your staff, and recognising your duty of care, will help keep things on an even keel.

As will having the right insurance. That way, even if the course of true love doesn't always run smoothly, at least there’s a good chance your business will.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.

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