October 29, 2021
Employee Harassment: When the Customer Isn’t Right
by Sharon DeLay, GO-HR
Employees expect to be protected from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace to your employees.
We can (or should) all agree that harassment (whether sexual or not) and discrimination are bad. What many businesses may not know is that action is required not only if an employee is on the receiving end of harassment from another employee or manager, but also if a vendor or customer (third party) harasses an employee.
Employees often fail to report harassment because they fear disbelief of their claim, a concern that is compounded if the harassment comes from a “good” client or vendor that the employer fears losing. Too often, employers carry the “customer is always right” thinking too far and fail to treat an employee’s complaint about harassment from a customer or vendor with the same seriousness it would if the harasser was a co-worker or manager.
There are three areas an employer needs to focus on to protect their employees from harassment and discrimination, regardless of who the harasser is.
Employers should have a no-tolerance approach to harassment and discrimination at every level of employee interaction and as a cornerstone of organizational culture. The policy should include education, a reporting process and a commitment to investigating the complaint in a timely matter and without retaliation.
Investigations should be coordinated with an attorney and conducted by a neutral party. When the offender is an outside third party, your obligation to investigate is no less, but the situation can be more complex. Considerations of the investigation process need to include:
- Ensuring as much confidentiality to the employee as reasonably possible and listening to the complaint in an objective and non-judgmental manner to ensure the objectivity of the investigation.
- Protecting the employee from future interactions with the third party. A complaint does not mean you must terminate the relationship with the customer, but you do need to remove the employee from potential additional harassing or discriminatory activity. This separation can be through schedule changes or changing points of contact for the customer but must not be retaliatory to the employee.
- Creating a plan for the investigation process.
- Documenting all interviews thoroughly and objectively, ensuring that any supporting information (photos, texts, emails, etc.) is collected as part of the process.
- Securing signed statements from all parties interviewed.
Unlike employees, customers may refuse to participate in an investigation. This needs to be documented, as well. An employer can’t simply choose not to interview a customer in an effort to expedite the investigation or avoid upsetting a customer.
Once the information is collected, work with your attorney to identify follow-up steps, which could include protective orders of the harassed employee, initiating legal action, or severing the customer relationship. Follow up with the reporting employee to communicate the remediation steps, and ensure that the employee feels protected and is confident that you have their safety in mind.