How businesses should handle third party harassment of employees
As an employer, your employees should be a top priority in the creation of a productive environment. Ensuring that all employees feel like they are operating in a safe place, including efforts to prevent and eliminate workplace harassment, helps to ensure this productivity. If your employees are experiencing harassment from outside vendors, this not only contributes to an unsafe and hostile work environment, but also places responsibility squarely on your shoulders for addressing the issue. Here are some guidelines to follow when it comes to dealing with third party harassment in the workplace.
- become familiar with case law and precedent
- talk to your employees about what they need to feel safe
- be clear about your expectations for third party vendors
- make sure these expectations and behavioral guidelines are in writing
- have a safe system setup for reporting and resolving issues
- wait until it is too late to handle an issue
- be afraid to seek professional advice
- seek retaliation against a reporting employee
- break employees’ trust by breaching confidentiality
- underestimate your ability to create change
Do become familiar with case law and precedent
When seeking to proactively address issues of third party harassment in the workplace, it is important to become familiar with case law. In its decision on Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp., the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers can be held liable for workplace harassment perpetrated by a third party. This holds that it is the employer’s responsibility to take action to prevent or adequately address harassment of any kind directed toward employees by outside vendors, contractors, etc.
Do talk to your employees about what they need to feel safe
In the case discussed above, plaintiff Lori Freeman sought assistance from her employer, Dal-Tile Corp., after being repeatedly subjected to racial and sexual harassment from Timothy Koester, a customer’s independent sales representative. She clearly did not feel safe or protected in her workplace. This demonstrates the need to talk to your employees about what they need to feel safe, as well as to discuss what would help them maintain a productive workplace. Putting their feedback into action will ensure a more positive environment for everyone involved.
Do be clear about your expectations for third party vendors
In order to promote appropriate workplace behavior, be as clear as possible in communicating your expectations for third party vendors. As these vendors may not be a regular part of your workplace, they may be unfamiliar with office rules. Take the time to talk with third party vendors about your expectations, and perhaps schedule a meeting with new vendors when they come on board to address these rules and other issues. When everyone is informed, outcomes are generally better.
Do make sure these expectations and behavioral guidelines are in writing
As with any workplace rules and expectations, be sure to have behavioral guidelines regarding third party harassment in writing, including a comprehensive handbook in place with a policy against harassment. Language should be clear that harassment of any nature will not be tolerated, and that employees should immediately report harassment to their supervisor or HR. These written guidelines should be easily available (hard copy and even online) to all employees.
Do have a safe system setup for reporting and resolving issues
After futile attempts to resolve her situation with Dal-Tile’s HR department, Freeman resigned her position and filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging a hostile work environment created by her former employer, along with constructive discharge. She did not feel that the system for reporting and resolving issues was working.
You do not want to face this with your employees, so adopt a streamlined reporting procedure and take immediate action to address and investigate complaints. Make sure employees feel protected under this system.
Do not wait until it is too late to handle an issue
Waiting to take action on an issue shows a lack of care in regard to third party harassment issues, and contributes to an unsafe work environment. Consequences, including lawsuits, can be disastrous for employers, not to mention employees. Immediate corrective actions should be taken if an investigation uncovers that harassment has occurred. Being timely in your handling of an issue shows employees that you are taking the issue seriously.
Do not be afraid to seek professional advice
Handling third party harassment can often be difficult for employers, especially if they have not had any experience in dealing with similar issues before. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional advice and guidance. If you maintain legal representation, talk to an attorney about the best way to handle harassment cases, as well as how to put proper guidelines in place to prevent issues from occurring in the first place. It is important that everything you do in regard to harassment is legal to protect you, your employees and your vendors.
Do not seek retaliation against a reporting employee
Never seek retaliation against a reporting employee, as they are depending on you to create a safe workplace environment for them and your other employees. Employees report issues in order to create a better workplace for everyone. Remember that employees cannot be retaliated against for reporting harassment nor for participating in a harassment investigation. As the employer, you should be your employees’ biggest advocate.
Do not break employees’ trust by breaching confidentiality
If your employees feel that their concerns are handled in a confidential manner, they will feel more comfortable with reporting third party harassment issues. Confidentiality must be maintained to the extent practical. Be sure to express the importance of confidentiality to your employees, and work with HR to make sure this is understood by both employees and third party vendors.
Do not underestimate your ability to create change
As an employer, you have the ability to create positive change within the workplace. Don’t underestimate the power you have to prevent and properly handle third party harassment issues. Work with your employees and vendors to create a workplace environment where everyone feels that they are safe and have the ability to maintain their productivity.
When you have a proactive plan in place to prevent and handle harassment issues, you will have a stronger, more productive workplace. Preparation and listening to your employees is key, and both will go a long way in ensuring that everyone feels safe in their work environment. Protect your employees, and show that you are a responsible employer who takes these types of issues seriously.