Treat Harassment by Non-employees no Differently Than Harassment by Employees
An employer’s obligations to an employee harassed by a non-employee are exactly the same as if the alleged perpetrator was an employee
The civil rights agency found that Rashon Sturdivant, an experienced care provider, faced daily harassment, including racially offensive remarks about “brown sugar” and “black butts,” requests to perform sexual acts, and lewd comments about her body. The client also masturbated in front of her and groped her when she performed routine tasks like helping him sit up in bed or cleaning him. Although Sturdivant and other care providers informed R. MacArthur of his conduct, the EEOC charges that the employer failed to act on these complaints and also retaliated against Sturdivant by refusing to reassign her to another client.
- Be prompt. Upon receipt of a complaint of harassment, a business must act as quickly as reasonably possible under the circumstances to investigate, and if necessary, correct the conduct and stop from happening again.
- Be thorough. Investigations must be as comprehensive as possible given the severity of the allegations. Not every complaint of offensive workplace conduct will require a grand inquisition. The more egregious allegations, however, the more comprehensive of an investigation is called for.
- Consider preliminary remedial steps. While an investigation is pending, it is best to segregate the accused(s) and the complainant(s) to guard against further harassment or worse, retaliation. Companies place themselves in a much worse position if they are too lax instead of too cautious.
- Communicate. The complaining employee(s) and the accused should be made aware of the investigation process—who will be interviewed, what documents will be reviewed, how long it will take, the importance of confidentiality and discretion, and how the results will be communicated.
- Follow through. There is nothing illegal about trying remedial measures less severe than ending the relationship in all but the most egregious cases. A valued customer may be no less valued after asking an employee about her underwear, for example. If the conduct continues, however, the discipline must get progressively more harsh. If you tell an employee that termination is the next step, you must be prepared to follow-through.
I’ll give EEOC San Francisco District Director William R. Tamayo the final word on this issue:
The customer is not always right. The law requires employers to ensure that workers are protected from sexual harassment, even when that workplace is non-traditional, like a client’s home, and even when the alleged harasser is a customer or client.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.