Is my employer liable for harassment by a vendor?

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Question:

I'm a receptionist for an accounting firm, and one of my job duties is to greet clients, take deliveries, and assist vendors at the front desk of the office. My ancestors are from Ghana, and I honor my ethnicity by wearing garments made from Kente cloth.

Sometimes, other employees or visitors to the office ask about my clothing, and I'm happy to talk to them about my heritage and what the clothing means to me. However, one vendor, who delivers paper, toner, and other office supplies, has been very disrespectful and rude about the way I dress. Whenever I see him, he tells me that I need to dress like an American, that I should go back to Africa, that he can't believe the firm allows me to dress this way, etc. I have no complaints about anyone I work for or with, but the firm has refused to do anything about this vendor. I've talked several times to the human resources department, but they tell me they have no power over the delivery company and can't do anything about his behavior. What should I do? 

 

Answer:

First of all, your employer needs to take action. It's true that your firm doesn't have the explicit authority to hire, fire, or discipline the vendor's employees. But that isn't the end of the story: Maybe your firm can't hand this guy a pink slip, but it still has plenty of power to affect his behavior. 

Your employer is responsible for known harassment by non-employees over whom it has control, like vendors, customers, delivery people, and contractors who are on the employer's premises. Once the employer knows about this type of harassment, it has a legal obligation to take effective action to stop it. Your employer is on notice because of your complaints to the HR department. 

So what can the employer do? It can start by contacting the vendor company, telling them what's going on, and asking them to take some action. If the delivery person keeps showing up and making rude comments, your employer can put its money where its mouth is by threatening to take its business elsewhere if the vendor doesn't make a change. If you want to avoid the delivery person while the situation is getting sorted out, your employer could offer to have another employee work the front desk when deliveries are scheduled. 

The argument that the employer can't take action against a non-employee might be valid if the employer really has no way to control the third party's behavior. If your firm were having an office barbeque at a local park, for example, and a complete stranger wandered over and started shouting racial epithets, there's not much the employer can do beyond calling the police and trying to keep employees safe in the meantime. But third parties who are invited to enter the work area are a different story. The employer can do plenty, up to and including barring them entry, to stop them from harassing employees. 

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