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Business/Economy

Are businesses responsible for protecting customers from sexual harassment by other clients?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: December 24, 2017
  • Published December 24, 2017

You've met the predatory customer. He or she makes work life difficult for others because his money, power or simply his status as a customer enable him to do so.

Do businesses have a responsibility to protect their customers from other customers that sexually harass them? What can an employer do if their business survival depends on contracts from a larger business when the individual who controls the purse strings for those contracts sexually harasses one of the dependent company's employees?

Protecting your customers

When Randi Zuckerberg tweeted: "Feeling disgusted & degraded after an @AlaskaAir flight where the passenger next to me made repeated lewd sexual remarks. The flight attendants told me he was a frequent flier, brushed off his behavior & kept giving him drinks. I guess his $ means more than our safety?," it went viral. More than 26,000 individuals "liked" her Nov. 30 tweet, and nearly 13,000 retweeted it.

Zuckerberg attached to the tweet the letter she sent to Alaska's Airlines CEO, letting her followers know the passenger rated women's bodies, touched himself, and asked her if she fantasized about a female business colleague. After she told the flight attendants, they suggested she not take it personally, as he frequently traveled the route and offered to reseat her in a middle seat at the back of the plane. As all this happened before the plane took off, flight attendants could have reseated the man or escorted him off the plane. Instead, they left her to suffer his presence.

Zuckerberg reported she was furious with the airlines for knowingly providing the male passenger a platform for harassing women. Alaska Airlines has since revoked the male passenger's travel privileges pending the outcome of the investigation they've launched.

Did Zuckerberg expect too much? No. According to Steve Koteff, senior attorney with the Alaska State Human Right Commission.

"There's no gray area here. An airline may not discriminate against someone through its customers any more than it may do so directly. Companies engaged in customer service must ensure that the people providing that service are properly equipped to deal with this kind of behavior. Ms. Zuckerberg's complaint suggests a corporate culture where employees may be uncertain about their responsibilities to protect customers from harassment to the point they become complicit in it. Clearer guidance, and dependable assurance that employees will not suffer consequences for doing the right thing, may be what's needed here."

Protecting your employees

In the last decade, more than a dozen engineering, accounting and oil patch companies have contacted The Growth Company asking what they need to do when one of our employees lets them know they've been harassed by the primary client's representative. They fear if they "create a problem" for their client, they risk losing the relationship and thus jeopardize their survival.

According to Koteff, "Customer preference is not a license to either discriminate or allow an employee to be discriminated against. Business owners may feel they're between a rock and a hard place when they receive reports about customers' inappropriate behavior, but there is only one legally appropriate response when informed about harassment of their employees. They must take prompt reasonable measures to end the harassment and ensure that it does not happen again. This almost always means confronting the customer about the behavior, regardless of how that may impact the company's bottom line.

"Whether measures are reasonable can depend on the degree of control the company has over the situation. If an ongoing customer relationship is anticipated, the company should follow up to determine how the customer addressed the complaints. If the response does not seem adequate, ending the relationship may be necessary."

In addition to honoring their legal obligation, employers that have their employees' backs win respect — and they can do so without losing their client relationship.

Here's a strategy we've offered our clients and that's worked in every instance. Our client's CEO requests a private meeting with the larger company's CEO or COO and lets him or her know they may have an internal issue that could cause both companies a problem. When our clients pose this situation with respect and from a position of mutual interest, it brings results and maintains the relationship.

Concrete steps

Here are other steps companies can take to prevent customer harassment:

– Take customer complaints seriously.

– Train employees to professionally intervene when they see inappropriate conduct. As one example, airline representatives can reseat and/or limit alcohol service to a problem passenger.

– Review your company's policies related to harassment and discrimination and realize that policies need to "live" off the paper they're printed on. This means they need to be enforced and front-line employees need to know what authority they have to remedy a problem.

– Finally, create a company culture in which respect lives. In the same way it's harder to litter in a clean area, a professional environment discourages crass behavior.

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