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How to respond to third-party harassment

You have a responsibility to respond quickly and firmly to situations involving outside predators. It all starts with the employee handbook.

How to respond to third-party harassment
Prompt responses are crucial in maintaining a professional workplace where employees are respected. If a harassment case goes to court, your speed of response could become an important factor.

Harassment in the workplace lowers morale, reduces productivity and otherwise upsets employees. It can take the form of unwanted flirtation, forced touching or inappropriate jokes about an employee’s religion, race or gender. It could involve an unwillingness of someone to work with, for example, a sight-impaired employee.

Harassment also can occur when someone inappropriately contacts an employee outside of work hours. Any behavior that threatens another person, humiliates him or her, or otherwise victimizes a person can be considered harassment.

When employee harassment occurs, and all the parties work at your practice, the situation can be challenging, but hopefully you have a process in place to deal with it.

But what if the person accused of harassing one of your employees doesn’t work at the practice? Perhaps the person is the janitor at the building where your practice is housed, a pharmaceutical salesperson or a landscaper. The accused could be an investor, a shareholder or a client. The harassment could happen in person, in writing or on the phone, by email or even through social media.

So, what do you do?

Know the Law

First, your practice team needs a solid foundation on which to form third-party anti-harassment policies and procedures, so educate yourself and your managers about the laws and case law. At the core of relevant case law is Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp., the case in which the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, yes, employers can be held liable when a third party engages in workplace harassment.

In this landmark case, the plaintiff asked her employer for help when an independent sales representative who visited the company repeatedly subjected her to harassment, both sexual and racial. She did not think her company protected her, and she ultimately resigned. She then filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, stating that the workplace environment was hostile and that the reporting system didn’t work.

Educating your management team about this case is crucial to set the stage for how seriously such behaviors are taken in federal courts. Also, be knowledgeable about and share your state’s laws, because specifics do vary.

Then, after making sure your managers are clear about the laws, it’s important to discuss what’s needed in your practice to create appropriate policies, procedures and channels of communication so that your employees, unlike the plaintiff in the case described above, can be promptly heard and remedies readily applied.

Include expectations of third-party vendors in your employee handbook, and let team members know how to immediately inform you about any vendor harassment. Be crystal clear that you have zero tolerance for harassment. Review the guidelines with every new employee and revisit them with all employees annually.

Choosing Third-Party Vendors

Clearly communicate your expectations to vendors when you select them, explaining that appropriate behavior is required in your practice. You might want to schedule an orientation meeting when you choose a vendor, whether a salesperson from a drug company, someone who services office equipment or a contractor. Professionally communicated expectations are more likely to be met. Although these conversations might feel awkward initially, companies with similar philosophies will respect your boundaries. If a third-party company is not comfortable with a professional discussion about employee harassment, it’s not one you would want to continue to do business with.

When a Complaint Is Lodged

Prompt responses are crucial in maintaining a professional workplace where employees are respected. If a harassment case goes to court, your speed of response could become an important factor. Failing to act immediately could be considered a lack of care and potentially contribute to a decision that your practice has an unsafe work environment.

You should investigate complaints about third-party harassment just as you would if the accused worked for the practice. The investigation should be prompt, unbiased and fair.

While the investigation is ongoing, you can adjust the affected employee’s duties to protect the person from the accused harasser. Do so in a way that has the least impact on the employee’s job. This is important because unlawful retaliation might be alleged if a change in duties negatively affects the employee who lodged the complaint.

If your investigation indicates that harassment occurred, speak with the third-party vendor or the vendor’s human resources department. You might need to end the vendor relationship or find a different company representative.

Don’t Stop There

Depending on the circumstances, other steps might need to be taken, including preventive measures. The actions should include, but are not limited to, reviewing your employee handbook to ensure that the complaint-filing process is optimal and determining whether any policies or procedures need updating. Policies must contain the same zero-tolerance language as harassment policies created for intrapractice situations and must protect witnesses who come forward with relevant information.

When you annually review the employee handbook, use the opportunity to further educate employees about third-party harassment, including how it is defined and how they should respond if they see it happening. Encourage employees to speak up, and let them know you will protect them from retaliation.

Whenever a situation arises, consider seeking an attorney’s advice, especially if you have never handled something similar. Better yet, talk to an attorney when creating your harassment policies so that you have systems in place to swiftly deal with third-party harassment. This approach will help protect your practice as well as your employees and vendors.

Always remember to maintain confidentiality, which is crucial so that your employees feel safe when reporting issues. This will play a significant role in creating a workplace that is stronger, more productive, and more successful.

A Note About Client Harassment

Situations in which a client harasses an employee can be especially challenging. Because a filed complaint can affect revenue, employees might be reluctant to report harassment. For this reason, your policies should explicitly state that harassing behaviors by clients should be reported and that any reports will be thoroughly investigated.

Regardless of the parties involved, harassment in the workplace is a serious matter that should be addressed immediately. Your practice should have policies to deal with harassment, and they should be shared with all employees. Doing this will promote a safe work environment where everyone can do their job successfully.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.