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Beware of a growing risk: harassment by customers

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in Compensation and Benefits,Human Resources

Issue: Too many employers think harassment is a problem only when it's an employee-on-employee thing.

Risk: Recent rulings prove that you can be held liable even when outsiders harass your employees.

Action: Taking action may cost you a customer, but courts say defending employees must come first.

When a tipsy customer harasses a waitress, the restaurant manager may throw up his hands and say, "What can we do? We can't control what customers do!"

That may be true, but you can control what happens next. Employers are responsible for trying to intervene when they become aware of employees being harassed by customers or other outsiders.

If your organization knew of the harassment (or should have known) yet did nothing to stop it, you're wide open to liability. That's why managers need to learn to take prompt and decisive action whenever someone points the harassment finger.

While you obviously can't discipline customer harassers, you must take reasonable steps to end the harassment. If that means losing the customer, so be it.

Case in point: A Honduran-born postmaster in a small Oregon town faced death threats and offensive comments from customers about her accent. She complained up the Post Office chain of command, but to no avail. She sued for harassment and the court sided with her, saying the Postal Service was liable because it essentially "condoned" the conduct by ignoring it. (Galdamez v. Potter, No. 03-35682, 9th Cir., 2005)

Another risk: Harassment by independent contractors. Example: A nurse sued a hospital, saying a male doctor made life miserable for female employees. A lower court tossed out the case because the doctor was an independent contractor, not an employee. But a federal court reversed, saying the important factor was the hospital's response. (Dunn v. Washington County Hospital, No. 05-1277, 7th Cir., 2005)

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