Almost all managers and business owners understand that the law protects their employees from harassment by fellow employees or by any boss. Many companies even have written policies in place, detailing the seriousness of such harassment and how it will be investigated. Whether it’s sexual, racial, or any other inappropriate behavior, most managers know it cannot be tolerated. But what do you do when the harasser isn’t an employee? What if the harassment comes from a vendor or a customer?
Don’t just ignore misdeeds of outsiders. With vendors, you can complain to their supervisors to demand that the vendor either be disciplined or replaced. Dealing with errant customers can be more difficult though, especially if your company has had the attitude of ‘the customer is always right.’ But you cannot just ignore misdeeds by customers, especially if they are towards your staff.
The law firm Jackson Lewis PC addressed this issue recently in an article:
The Seventh Circuit provided an illustrative hypothetical of this in Dunn v. Washington County Hospital:
Suppose a patient kept a macaw in his room, that the bird bit and scratched women but not men, and that the Hospital did nothing. The Hospital would be responsible for the decision to expose women to the working conditions affected by the macaw, even though the bird (a) was not an employee, and (b) could not be controlled by reasoning or sanctions. It would be the Hospital’s responsibility to protect its female employees by excluding the offending bird from its premises.
429 F.3d 689, 691 (7th Cir. 2005).
Still, this does not mean the law makes employers vicariously liable for customers’ actions. Rather, the Seventh Circuit held, the standard of liability applicable to coworker harassment also applies to customer-based harassment. Although this standard does not translate perfectly to situations of alleged customer harassment, it is adaptable.
Read the full article at JacksonLewis website.
In other words, you need to stand up against harassment whenever it happens at the workplace, whether the offender is an employee or an outsider. You might not have as much leverage over customers but that doesn’t mean you should allow them to get away with demeaning behavior. Might it endanger sales? Certainly, but some things are more important that a large profit.
Do you have your harassment policies in writing? If not, then consider getting at least that in place. By getting the company’s standards and expectations in writing, you are making sure all employees know that you won’t tolerate disrespect of another. It also offers guidance to all supervisors. Time to get an employee handbook designed specifically for your particular business.