Society has become increasingly aware of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Several high-profile offenders have seen their careers harmed or ended.
Employers are beginning to realize the harm this behavior among employees can cause. However, the problem might not be the business’s workers; in many cases, it is the customers.
Harassment by customers may occur in any business, but it is especially prevalent in certain industries. In the hospitality sector, some customers – generally male, but not exclusively so – who have been drinking may lose their inhibitions and behave inappropriately toward waitresses, bartenders, casino dealers or housekeeping staff.
Female sales representatives in the financial services sector may be subjected to unwanted attention and language, particularly during client dinners where most of the diners are men. And nurses are regularly subjected to male patients exposing themselves or touching them improperly.
Often, employees are reluctant to report these incidents for fear of losing their jobs. But employers who do learn of these problems have at least a legal responsibility to address them. If a worker brings a complaint about a customer’s behavior to management or the human resources department, the employer should:
- Listen to the employee and take them seriously.
- Thank them for coming forward.
- Let them know that the issue will be addressed with the customer.
- Ask them to report any further incidents that may occur.
- Do nothing to imply that they will be retaliated against.
Some employers, such as restaurants, have a no-questions-asked procedure whereby a server can report to a supervisor that a customer is making them feel uncomfortable and the supervisor will immediately assign someone else to that table.
In addition to nipping a problem in the bud, this policy tells employees that their complaints will be considered legitimate.
After learning of a situation that may potentially be sexual harassment, the employer should:
- Investigate the incident, including discussions with any witnesses.
- If the customer is from another business, refer the matter to an appropriate person at that company. This should be someone with the authority to take any necessary action.
- If the customer is an individual, separate the employee and the customer.
- If the customer persists, issue a warning.
- As a last resort, ask the customer to leave the premises.
The legal implications
Employers cannot afford to ignore these problems. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations hold an employer liable for harassment by non-employees over whom it has control, such as customers on the premises, if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
The EEOC levies penalties of up to six figures for sexual harassment.
In addition, victimized employees may sue their employers for tolerating hostile work environments. Settling these lawsuits can be costly.
If the employers do not carry employment practices liability insurance, settlement costs and attorney and court fees will be paid for out of pocket.
Lastly, the failure to protect employees from harassment can lower workplace morale. This will inevitably lead to increased staff turnover. The employer will lose valuable employees and be faced with the cost of hiring replacements.
Federal law gives employees the right to feel safe at work, free from mistreatment by co-workers, supervisors and non-employees. It is also good business practice to provide a place where people want to work.
Employers must be vigilant about possible mistreatment of staff by customers and vendors. Tolerating this behavior may save a customer in the short run, but it will cost the business dearly in the longer term.
A final thought: Sexual harassment is not the sole preserve of men harassing women. It is also an issue of women harassing men, men harassing men, or one female harassing another.