Don’t Get Caught with Your Pants Down: Addressing Vendor and Customer Harassment | DCR Workforce Blog

Don’t Get Caught with Your Pants Down: Addressing Vendor and Customer Harassment

Don’t Get Caught with Your Pants Down: Addressing Vendor and Customer Harassment

After an illustrious career spanning 52 years, Bill Cosby, entertainer par excellence, has captured the hearts and minds of not just Americans but also many English-speaking citizens of the world. It comes as no surprise then that the recent allegations of sexual misconduct by Cosby and his recent arraignment on felony charges have vertically split the world into two groups: one staunchly supportive; the other vitriolic in its censure! Vendor and customer harassment at the workplace has a similarly polarizing response from employers. However, as discussed in an earlier blog on Title VII protections; all workers merit an employer’s protection. Concerns with protection against harassment at the workplace grow manifold, and when the workers come in as independent contractors or temporary workers they may be more isolated than a permanent employee. Providing a safe workplace free from harassment is primarily the responsibility of the staffing buyer.

It’s shocking! Statistics show that 90% of children who reported abuse know their abuser. Close relatives account for 30%, while family friends, babysitters, child care providers and neighbors constitute 60%. Only 10% are abused by strangers. For businesses, their customers and vendors have and hold a similarly important place of respect and trust, if not downright entitlement. After all, they’re providing a valuable service or, in the case of the customer, paying the bills!

The question is not whether it’s an employer’s unavoidable duty to create a safe working place extends to protecting their workers from valued customers and dependable vendors, who may harass them in any way, shape or form but rather it becomes how can they provide protection? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is among the top five reasons for employees to call them, and 8% of the callers are male! Like Costco, which is facing the EEOC’s action for not taking effective action to stop the sexual harassment of its employee by a customer, employers may be levied penal charges for failing to protect their employees from customer harassment.

Controlling a vendor is far easier than curbing a customer. Most employers find that they can easily put a stop to a vendor’s misdemeanor often with just a phone call, as they hold the trump card of threatening to pull their business from the vendor should the offender repeat the behavior or even enter their premises (depending upon the seriousness of the incident) – but the same cannot always be said of a misbehaving customer. After all, no business can exist without its customers! However, that doesn’t mean that an employer can refuse to take action or allow the offender to continue unchecked. The responsibility to protect workers and prevent any harassment rests squarely on the employer’s shoulders. So, what can an employer do?

Customer Harassment Checks and Balances

Train all workers on the policy guidelines governing harassment at work, and help them know that they need to report any abuse or harassment not just from colleagues, but also customers and even visiting sales/repair/delivery people, without any fear of retaliation or adverse action. Train all supervisors and managers on the process put in place to ensure a harassment-free environment. Empower management to act without delay when the situation warrants immediate intervention.

The following are eight great ways to address and eliminate vendor and customer harassment in the workplace:

  1. Pay attention to the employee, investigate the complaint thoroughly and document the complaint as well as the action taken.
  2. Meet the alleged perpetrator and discuss the issue and request the person keep away from the accuser. Assign them a different person, if the business requires a dedicated resource.
  3. Request the customer use a different outlet or refuse their business, if circumstances warrant it.
  4. Allow a different representative to serve the vendor and customer.
  5. If the alleged perpetrator is an employee of a valuable customer, try to get the customer (or their HR Department) depute a different individual to handle the transaction, or counsel them to operate without causing any trouble or discomfort to your worker(s).
  6. If more than one employee is being harassed by the same person, you may have to fire that customer or switch vendors even if it means financial losses.
  7. If unable to stop customer or vendor harassment for any reason, or if the harassment is repetitive or includes an invasion of privacy; take the issue to the police department. Sometimes an official criminal complaint is taken more seriously. If you don’t escalate the issue, you may be liable for not providing effective protection to the worker.
  8. Set filters on all electronic communications to keep out offensive material and messages.

In all cases, make sure that you institute and publicize a zero-tolerance limit of any type of harassment as well as take prompt and corrective action to stop any harassment. Additionally, take measures to ensure that it will not recur in future. Failure to do so could create major complications later on because an employer who neglects to act can be prosecuted if it can be proven that on two previous occasions, they failed to protect a worker – even if the perpetrator is not the same person.

Do you agree? Would you like to share any personal experiences in this regard? What other ideas do you have to prevent harassment by customers or vendors?

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.