Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 years (in which case you probably aren’t reading my blog posts anyway), you know that “sexual harassment” is illegal in the workplace. What that means to most people is that employers have to make sure their employees do not commit sexual harassment against one another, and have to stop it when they find out it is occurring or has occurred.
What many employers and employees don’t know is that employers can be held liable for the harassment of their employees by people who are not employees of the company at all. This includes people like vendors, customers, and contractors who may visit the workplace, or who otherwise might have contact with employees.
Employees may be “harassed” by these categories of people just as easily as by fellow employees. The harassment may take place in person, by phone, or over email or text messages. It may occur on the employer’s premises or off. And employers are just as much at risk for liability in these situations as they are in the (more common) situation of a co-worker or supervisor harassing an employee.
The way to look at this is that the employer’s obligation is to protect its employees from illegal harassment whenever and wherever they are working – not just when they are on the employer’s property, and not just when they are around their co-workers.
Smart employers will have clear and effective sexual harassment policies that inform employees how to report any harassment they experience, regardless of where it occurs or from whom. All the same principles apply to non-employee harassment that apply to co-worker harassment. The employer has the same duty to provide a clear reporting procedure, to investigate reports of harassment promptly, and to take effective remedial action where warranted. In the case of harassment by an outside party, this may mean terminating your relationship with that party, or barring certain representatives of a vendor or customer from having contact with the harassed employee, or from visiting your place of employment.
If you believe you have experienced sexual harassment in your employment from someone who is not a co-worker, or if you are an employer wanting to make sure you and your employees are appropriately protected, be sure to contact competent legal counsel right away.