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Prevent harassment by customers, too

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Most employers have policies in place to prevent or stop sexual harassment by supervisors and co-workers. Today, that isn’t enough.

The reality is that you must also protect employees from customer or client harassment. Unless your sexual harassment policy addresses such harassment, you may find yourself facing a jury trial.

Recent case: Ernest Nelson managed an apartment complex housing low-income individuals, many of whom have physical or emotional disabilities.

Nelson claimed a female tenant had sexually harassed him. He told his employer the tenant exposed herself to him as many as 50 times. She allegedly raised her shirt and exposed her breasts and dropped her pants while not wearing underwear. Once, she dropped her pants, turned around and bent over. Nelson told her to stop.

Nelson said the nonprofit that managed the apartments told him to lock the doors when he worked near her, but never did anything to actually stop the woman’s behavior.

When Nelson sued, the nonprofit said the people who live in the complex sometimes have “known inadequacies in social skills.” Therefore, it argued, it could not be expected to stop the alleged harassment.

The court didn’t buy the employer’s arguments, and said a jury should decide whether Nelson worked in a sexually hostile environment.

The jury will be able to take into consideration the types of tenants who live in the complex, but that doesn’t bar a lawsuit entirely. (Nelson v. Anoka County Community Action Program, No. 07-4693, DC MN, 2009)

Final note: Take all sexual harassment complaints seriously. The fact is, employers can be liable for third-party harassment. You need to be ready to deal with such complaints.

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