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When the Customer Isn’t Always Right: How to Recognize and Respond to Third-Party Harassment

Published on 7/17/2017 12:00:00 AM
If an employee reports third-party harassment at work from a non-employee, you have a duty to protect them from the inappropriate behavior. Here's how you handle this issue.

As a responsible employer, you understand the importance of keeping your workplace free from harassment. Not only are incidents of harassment deeply upsetting to the affected employee(s); they can also lower productivity and morale, and even lead to costly lawsuits.

But maintaining a harassment-free workplace can be more challenging than it seems, for a number of reasons. First, harassment comes in many forms. Second, a harassed employee isn’t always forthcoming with a complaint. And finally, the harasser is not always an employee who can be fired for inappropriate behavior.

That’s right… harassment can come from anyone with whom your employees interact as part of their job. As an employer, what can you do to help prevent this type of threat from the outside? And what should you do if it happens anyway?

The definition of ‘harassment’ is broader than you might think

The stereotypical harassment scenario is often portrayed like this: An older male boss makes advances toward a young female in a subordinate role. He promises her that accepting those advances will be good for her career.

But this is a narrow and outdated view of harassment. Today, workplace harassment includes any hostile behavior toward a person based on gender, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or any other legally protected characteristic. And harassment isn’t always physical. It can occur in writing, by telephone, by email, via the Internet or any other means of communication.

Also, rank or authority doesn’t matter when defining harassment. Illegal conduct can be committed by an employee against another employee, by a manager against a subordinate, by a subordinate employee against a manager, or by a manager against another manager. Harassment can also come from a non-employee, such as a customer, vendor or independent contractor.

Here are just a few ways third-party harassment can strike in the workplace:

A customer flirts constantly with a salesperson on your staff, making suggestive comments and asking inappropriate personal questions.
An independent contractor refuses to work with a hearing-impaired employee because communication is “too difficult.”
The vendor who stocks your coffee and snack machines repeatedly makes offensive religious or racial jokes in the company break room.

“This last scenario illustrates an important point. A harassment claim doesn’t have to be made by the person at whom the conduct is directed, or by a member of the protected group targeted by the harassment,” says Ashley Kaplan, Esq., Lead Compliance Attorney for ComplyRight. “A harassment claim can be made by any employee affected or offended by the conduct — including witnesses and onlookers.”

What you should do about third-party harassment at work

Awareness and action are two essential components of a harassment-free workplace.

As part of regular harassment training, address the issue of third-party harassment with employees and provide specific examples such as the ones mentioned above. Making employees aware that these types of situations constitute harassment will help them recognize illegal behavior no matter where it comes from. You also should encourage employees to voice their concerns immediately.

If an employee reports harassment by a third party, you have a duty to protect the employee from the inappropriate behavior. This may include:

Terminating your business relationship with the harasser
Confronting the harasser’s boss or supervisor about the behavior
Preventing the harasser from having contact with the employee

“You must take whatever measures will effectively shield your employee from further harm,” Kaplan says. “If you don’t, your company could be held liable in court.”

No matter who is involved in a complaint, you should investigate the situation immediately and thoroughly. The Workplace Harassment Response Toolkit from ComplyRight provides the forms and information you need to address different types of workplace harassment claims.

“Quick and proper response is essential,” says Kaplan. “If the case moves to court, the most critical element is not necessarily the validity of the complaint, but rather the action your company took to prevent and respond to it.”

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Shanna Wall, Esq.
Presented by: Shanna Wall, Esq.,
Compliance Attorney
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