Employers have the responsibility to protect their employees from workplace discrimination and harassment, whether by other employees or third parties. Handbooks typically include EEO policies, and anti-discrimination/harassment policies, as well as reporting procedures and a commitment to investigate and resolve any issues. Clearly these provisions cover co-worker situations, whether a peer or management employee, and the company has more control over that process. But what do you do when the alleged discrimination or harassment complaint involves a customer, vendor, contractor or other third party? All of these situations are tricky, but perhaps the most difficult is when the alleged harasser is a customer. If you’re a B2C company selling to the public, the “customer / alleged harasser” is typically one individual and you won’t have to work with another company to resolve it. If you’re selling B2B the alleged harasser is an employee of your customer so the lines of responsibility can get blurred. Both situations present unique challenges. Let’s focus on a B2B scenario today since that situation can be more tricky.
First and foremost, regardless of who is doing the harassing, you want it to stop. You’re obligated to provide a harassment free workplace. If that’s not clear at your workplace, it needs to be. However, determining if harassment occurred and if so making it stop will be handled differently when a customer is involved.
Do You Notify the Customer? Short answer – Yes. With customers it’s a more difficult conversation, but of course, no customer, client, vendor, etc. is more important than the legal rights of your employees. While conversations with clients about these issues are surely uncomfortable, people interacting with your employees need to realize that it is not appropriate to engage in this way with staff of the company and it must stop. If the behavior doesn’t stop, the employer needs to take such action as removing the client/customer from the workplace in the future. Now that’s an answer you would expect me to give right? But many of you are thinking – “If only it were that easy?” What if an important customer is involved? Will you get blamed for jeopardizing the account over potentially a frivolous charge? What will your Sales Director say – should you tell him? Will your Leadership team / board / your boss stand behind you? What if the customer’s employee claims your employee was actually doing the harassing? Questions like these usually make it hard for you to just swiftly and unilaterally take action in harassment cases involving a customer.
So now what? Let me start here – if you are a member and find yourself in this situation, give anyone on our Advice & Resolution team a call. These cases are tricky and can go in many different directions based on your situation. Here are the steps I would generally recommend you take:
- Conduct what I call a “pre-investigation.” You want to quickly get an idea of what you’re dealing with here. Take no more than a day, two at most. Get the employee’s statement regarding the inappropriate conduct, date, times, and witnesses and ideally in writing. Talk to available witnesses. As with any harassment case, it’s critical that you understand the nature and context of what has occurred. Is this an affair gone bad? Or does it involve a series of inappropriate comments? Were both parties engaging in the inappropriate behavior until one day a line was crossed? Is the harassment on-going or has it stopped?
- At this point, you should have a reasonable idea as to what was going on, and who is at fault, at least from your side’s vantage point. That will shape how you approach the customer. I wouldn’t pick up the phone and call the customer just yet. You need another leader involved. Ideally your boss. You don’t need to divulge names, but you want to make sure they are aware you received a compliant, you investigated it, your general findings, and your planned approach with the customer. I’m not suggesting you get permission, however, they might not agree with your course of action and good to have that discussion now. They may also have relevant suggestions for you.
- After you have received all relevant information about the complaint and made sure that information is included in written form, the allegations should be promptly referred to an appropriate customer representative. Since the alleged harasser is a customer’s employee, the customer is obligated to investigate. The person you choose to contact should be considered carefully and should be in a position to both understand the implications of what has occurred and have the authority to take appropriate action. Appropriate contacts could include human resources, an officer or a manager. When in doubt, in most cases, the HR Manager should be contacted. The person to whom you report the complaint should never be implicated in any way in the harassment that’s been alleged. When you report the complaint, you should ask that the customer investigate, take whatever corrective action is necessary and keep you informed. You want prompt corrective action to be taken if warranted. If it appears that the customer is dragging their feet, you should discuss that issue with the customer.
- Sometimes these cases go smoothly – the complaint is clear, it’s definitely harassment, the harasser is clearly guilty, and the customer takes swift action to stop the behavior. Other times, two very different accounts of what has happened exist and two very different courses of actions are proffered. If you find yourself in the latter case, you’ll be glad you involved your boss / leader in the case. The customer may believe your employee is equally at fault and advises you to take action against them. Any move initiated by the company should not appear retaliatory. Or they may refuse to take any action. You may have to get attorneys involved. Make sure on your side that if appropriate based on your investigation to remove contact between the employee and the harasser. You may ultimately have to make a decision as to the future of your relationship with the customer.
One old axiom of business is that the customer is always right. As we see here that may not always be true. When a customer engages in harassing behavior, you need to act, but the path isn’t always clear. CAI will help illuminate your path to the right resolution for your business.