Sure, a good supervisor will step in and stop it when one employee is sexually harassing another. By now, we all know the consequences of not doing so.

But what about when a customer, or a supplier, or some other outside party, is the one doing the harassing? Isn’t that a lot more complicated?

A duty to your people
Well, maybe. Supervisors don’t have the same kind of authority over such people as they do over employees. But supervisors still have a duty to do all they can to put an end to the harassment, whether that means confronting the harassing party or, more likely, reporting the matter to HR or higher management.

An example of this supervisory duty — with a high price tag attached — comes from a recent legal case in Virginia. Here’s what happened:

At a health clinic in Troutdale, VA, one male patient regularly harassed the female receptionist. She complained to her supervisor, but, according to the EEOC, the supervisor did nothing to stop the harassment.

Hostile workplace
The EEOC’s account didn’t say why the supervisor failed to act, but it may have been because the supervisor didn’t understand that harassment by a patient — a customer, if you will — was just as serious as harassment by a co-worker. Either way, harassment can and usually does create a hostile workplace, and employees have a right to NOT work under such conditions.

Anyway, the receptionist eventually contacted the EEOC, which sued the clinic’s operator for sexual harassment. Now the operator has agreed to settle the litigation for $30,000.

Here’s the lesson the EEOC wants employers to take away from the case, as articulated by a regional EEOC attorney:

“Employers have a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment not only by co-workers, but also by third parties, including patients and customers. Employers need to adopt measures to end sexual harassment that has been reported to the appropriate supervisor regardless of who is perpetrating the misconduct.”

Cite: EEOC v. Southwest Virginia Community Health System.

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