The #MeToo movement has brought necessary attention to workplace harassment, but many employers still have questions. By now, most HR departments should have unambiguous guidelines in place for handling employee harassment when it happens within the confines of the office. But what about when a non-employee is harassing one of your employees?
Often HR departments have clear policies regarding workplace harassment between employees, but fail to address non-employee harassment. If this is a gap in your employee handbook and training, you could be opening your business up to liability and failing to protect employees.
Harassment by a Non-Employee
Unfortunately, harassment happens in many scenarios, regardless of the relationship between the involved parties. This means that you could encounter a situation where one of your employees is suffering harassment from someone outside your company—a non-employee. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines a non-employee as anyone outside a company’s employment who has direct interaction with employees, such as a customer, an independent contractor, a delivery person, or any number of other individuals.
Employers have a legal obligation to protect their employees from workplace harassment, whether the harasser is an employee or non-employee. Federal, state, and local nondiscrimination statutes require employers to respond to concerns and complaints from their employees. Ignoring or retaliating against an employee for a complaint can result in liability and adverse legal action.
With this in mind, how should you respond when an employee brings forward a concern about harassment by a non-employee?
1. Take Immediate Action
The worst course of action you can take is none at all. Never ignore a complaint or concern from an employee. If a non-employee is harassing an employee, it is crucial to terminate any interaction the individuals have and to remove the employee from the situation. Your company can refuse service to any customer and end any relationship with a vendor or contractor. If your company fails to take swift and meaningful action, it could result in further damage and legal action.
2. Document Everything and Follow Protocol
Take written statements and document each step along the way. Be sure your employee handbook and policies provide guidance for non-employee harassment situations and follow your company’s written procedures. If your company currently doesn’t have a clear complaint process, implement one. If you need assistance training employees on workplace harassment or writing employee handbooks, reach out to an HR consulting firm.
3. Respond As You Would to an Employee Harassment Claim
Address your employee’s concerns in the same way you’d handle a harassment claim against an employee. Make it clear in workplace training and handbooks that your company exercises a zero-tolerance policy against unwelcome advances and harassment from anyone, including nonemployees.
Whether you employ a few people in a small office or hundreds across several locations, a comprehensive anti-harassment policy is crucial to protecting employees and your company. Feeling lost? We can assist you in workplace harassment training and writing HR handbooks. To learn more, contact us.