Is my employer responsible for sexual harassment by a client?

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Question:

I work at a design firm, choosing furnishings and decor for commercial office space. We have clients throughout the state, mostly commercial real estate management firms. Part of my job is to meet with our largest clients every quarter. Typically, we spend the day touring projects under development, reviewing product samples, planning new jobs, and going over budgets and specs; I also host a business lunch at a local restaurant. 

Lately, one client has begun hitting on me relentlessly. It seemed like harmless flirtation at first, but he has not backed off even after I've told him that I'm married, that I'm not interested, and that I want to keep our relationship professional. The last time I met with him, he took every opportunity to try to get me alone and touch me. I told my boss what was going on, and that I was starting to feel a little frightened about the situation. My boss said handling this graciously was part of my job. Not only is the company unwilling to do anything to help me out, but my boss essentially implied that I would be responsible if our relationship with the client suffered. What should I do? 

 

Answer:

Go back to your boss -- and to your company's human resources or personnel office -- and make clear that this is their problem to solve, not yours. What you are experiencing is sexual harassment. That the perpetrator works for a different company doesn't relieve your employer of legal responsibility for your situation. Once your employer knows that you are being harassed by a third party, your employer has an obligation to take immediate steps to correct the problem. 

Because the harasser doesn't work for your employer, there are some limits to what your employer can do to stop the harassment. For example, your employer can't fire the guy, discipline him, or require him to attend training, all of which it could impose on its own employees. However, there are plenty of other steps your employer can take, from assigning someone else to this account to sending along an associate, meeting with the harasser and making clear that his conduct is unwelcome, asking the harasser's supervisor to step in, or even threatening to end the business relationship if this behavior doesn't stop. 

Clearly, your company doesn't want to lose this client. However, that isn't sufficient justification for requiring you to put up with harassment. By refusing to take action and continuing to send you to this client, your employer has essentially said that sexual harassment is a job requirement for you. This is flatly illegal. The law doesn't allow employers to escape liability for discrimination or harassment by claiming that they were simply trying to keep customers or clients happy. 

When you speak to your boss, be as plain as possible. Rather than focusing on personalities or motives, take a legal tack. For example, you might say, "I'm concerned that we misunderstood each other earlier. I'm being sexually harassed by Roger. I've asked him to stop very clearly, and he has not. In fact, his behavior has gotten worse, to the point where I am now afraid to meet with him. I dread my trips to his company; it's causing me a lot of stress. From a legal perspective, it's your responsibility and the company's responsibility to take action to protect me. I need to know what steps you are going to take to end this harassment."

If your boss doesn't react well to this approach, take your concerns to the HR department immediately. This should also be your cue to start taking notes on what's happened: every incident of harassing, any conversations you had with your boss or others at your company about it, and so on. Hopefully, someone at your company will understand how serious the situation is and will take meaningful action to protect you. If not, however, you should consider filing a charge of harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state's fair employment practices agency -- and meeting with an experienced employment lawyer. 

 

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