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Sexual Harassment by Customers and Vendors

“Sexual Harassment by Customers and Vendors”

Educating employees isn’t enough; you’re also responsible for outsiders.

Federal law entitles employees to work in an atmosphere free from discriminatory intimidation and ridicule. Unfortunately, encouraging employees to respect each other and training managers to recognize and stifle inappropriate behavior may not be enough. If employees are sexually harassed by customers, vendors, consultants or visitors, you may still be legally responsible.

Courts rely on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines that blame an employer who fails to remedy sexual harassment of its workers by customers within its control, provided that the employer knew or should have known about the customers’ misconduct. This standard can leave you in an untenable position.

Reducing risk

Detecting third-party sexual harassment has become increasingly difficult for employers due to trends such as telecommuting.

You can, however, reduce the risk of being held responsible for outsiders’ mistreatment. Carefully check credentials of any consultants or vendors; advise them that any breach of this ethical obligation will result in their prompt dismissal.

What to watch for

In certain businesses, workers are more susceptible to sexually inappropriate behavior by outsiders. Customers in casinos, nightclubs and restaurants — where alcohol consumption is high — may act boorishly. Be alert to potential sexual hostility from vendors if your company is part of an industry in which one gender traditionally predominates. For instance, pay attention if your female project manager is supervising an all-male construction crew.

Besides educating your employees and managers, notify customers and vendors that you have zero-tolerance for sexual harassment. Never pressure employees to socialize with favored customers, and don’t ignore customer mistreatment of your staff. Train supervisors to confront abusive customers, and teach conflict-resolution techniques to workers.

An isolated episode of sexually inappropriate behavior by a customer against your employee isn’t likely to foster a hostile work environment. Encouraging personnel to report offensive behavior and taking immediate corrective measures limits exposure.

Take action — quickly

One company shielded itself from a lawsuit by making a prompt inquiry and reprimanding a customer who made sexually explicit remarks to female sales representatives. Likewise, a restaurant withstood a sexual-harassment claim brought by a waitress after a customer grabbed her arm and made a lewd comment. Soon after the waitress reported the incident, the restaurant manager warned the patron that he would be barred from the premises if any further complaints were received. The court ruled in the restaurant’s favor because its swift response was reasonably calculated to stop the harassing behavior.

Writer: Sheldon C. Toplitt is a lawyer and legal journalist concentrating on employment-law issues in Needham, Mass.