Founder and Employment Law Attorney Employment Practices Group
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Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work: When Your Client is the Problem

According to a study conducted by nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Sometimes, it's a client who's causing the problem, and if you're the boss, you might have to take measures to stop the behavior on your own. Here are three tips you can try.

Sep 28th 2020
Founder and Employment Law Attorney Employment Practices Group
Columnist
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stop harassment
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Suzanne is the sole proprietor of her accounting firm with three staff accountants who work with her. She’s been steadily growing the business, with the latest client being a family-owned insurance agency with 22 branches throughout the state. While Suzanne won the client through interactions with Joseph, the agency’s president and founder, she is now working closely with the agency’s vice president, Randy.  But working with Randy is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. 

In just the first few months of working together, Randy has made overtures, comments,and gestures that have been offensive to Suzanne.  For example, he has been asking Suzanne if she’s “available,” and he’s invited her out to drinks and dinner several times. She’s had lunch with him to discuss matters related to the financial statements and tax returns, and he routinely turns the conversation to personal topics that are quite embarrassing. For example, he talks about his prior relationships, including when his wife caught him on a date with another woman. He once touched her on the backside as they entered a restaurant. On videoconference calls, he always makes a comment about her living room and mentions his desire to help a woman-owned business “make it” in a man’s world. While she has been anxious for this new client to help propel her and the firm to the next level, she gets a pit in her stomach whenever Randy contacts her.

Randy’s conduct is inappropriate, unwelcome, and offensive. Given that it is sexual and gender-based in nature, it falls under her firm’s sexual harassment policy. If this happened to one of Suzanne’s employees, she would have a legal obligation to respond to it – promptly and thoroughly. The problem for Suzanne is that she has no one to turn to, as she is the employer. She has no Human Resources Department. She’s responsible for handling it on her own.

What should Suzanne do? For starters, one thing she should not do is put up with it. No one, whether it be the owner of a firm, a manager or a non-supervisory employee, should have to tolerate harassing behavior in the workplace. That is true regardless of whether the offender is a firm owner, employee or a third party who the individual comes into contact within the business environment, such as a client, vendor or contractor. 

No question, it gets sticky when the harasser is the client. After all, without clients, there is no business. Suzanne has no way of knowing if Randy has the ability to pull the business on his own if he doesn’t like what she says.  On the other hand, if Suzanne refuses to do something about Randy’s behavior, it could escalate and have a seriously detrimental effect on her, her firm and her client. Suzanne’s stress and anxiety have been off the charts since Randy entered the picture, and she is wondering how to preserve both the client relationship and her own sanity. 

Taking a step back and examining the situation, the following are some steps Suzanne can take.

  1. Avoidance and Boundary Setting

While undoubtedly what Randy is doing is wrong, there are several different approaches Suzanne can take. One is to deal with it head on, and the other is to soft pedal it and hope it dissipates. On the softer approach, Suzanne could make an effort to minimize her one-on-one contacts with Randy and set the tone early on.  For example, she could invite someone along to any scheduled meetings or calls. She can and should certainly decline any invitations for drinks or dinner, even when they are made under the guise of talking business. Alternatively, she could assign someone else to the account and oversee it, instead of being the principal contact, which is a viable option so long as there is no adverse business impact. She has to be careful here, as she should not choose a male just because of his gender but, if she selects a female for the account, she should closely monitor the situation to ensure that Randy acts professionally with her.

When she does interact with Randy, Suzanne can make it clear to him that she has no interest in a personal relationship with him, either because she is involved with somebody or she just doesn’t mix business with her social life.  She can divert any conversation that appears to be going sideways back to business. Of course, she should always dress professionally, not flirt or be overly friendly, and keep the conversation to business. Not that she is “asking for it” if she lets her hair down a bit and tries to make a connection with Randy; she is not. But sometimes, people like Randy find mixed messages and take advantage of relationships with women who they see as friendly.

This is not to be mistaken for the basic principle that Suzanne deserves to be treated with dignity and respect at all times – by clients, prospective clients and others with whom she interacts. But the reality is workplace romance happens. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s important not to confuse consensual and welcome contacts from those that are uncomfortable and offensive. From the fact pattern described above, Randy’s attention is unwelcome to Suzanne. 

  1. Talk to the Client

The best course of action, if Suzanne feels comfortable, is to talk to Randy directly to inform him that his conduct toward her is inappropriate and must stop. This can be a tough conversation, as it’s a one-on-one talk that can appear to be confrontational. But communicating to Randy his conduct is offensive and cannot continue can be an effective strategy for someone in Suzanne’s shoes. 

If she chooses to take this route, Suzanne should pick an appropriate neutral business setting, without alcohol, where she feels as comfortable as possible. She should wear something that makes her feel strong and confident.  In talking to Randy, she should minimize the emotion and keep it as professional as possible. 

If she chooses not to tackle it head on, Suzanne can be more indirect, like making a light-hearted comment to Randy such as, “I’m just guessing my significant other would not appreciate me having these types of conversations, so let’s talk about something else” or “If Joseph was with us, I’m betting your comments would be much more gentleman-like. Let’s pretend he’s sitting right here.” It’s possible Randy gets the hint with the more indirect approach.

  1. Talk to the Client’s Boss

Another option for Suzanne to reach out to Joseph, who is the top executive at the agency and Randy’s boss.  Suzanne may have a greater comfort level talking to Joseph rather than directly to Randy.

In her conversation with Joseph, Suzanne should be as direct and factual as possible, reporting what has occurred and how it has affected her.  If she documented any of the instances with Randy, she can reference it. While undoubtedly, this will be an uncomfortable conversation, it’s a necessary one. Suzanne has to tell it like it is and ask for Joseph’s intervention to ensure the harassment does not happen again. This approach also ensures her client can take actions they consider appropriate to protect themselves from similar issues with Randy in the future.

In sum, it’s obviously an uneasy situation when the client is the harasser. Whether the target is the owner of the firm or another employee, such behavior should not be tolerated. Someone must speak up and say that the offensive comments or conduct is unacceptable and has to stop. Absent that, offenders may think they have carte blanche to continue misbehaving and probably a “green light” to increase the level of offensive conduct. While not always easy, calling out a harasser is the right thing to do and, hopefully, has the triggering effect of permanently stopping offensive behavior.  If it doesn’t, no client is worth putting up with such objectionable conduct.

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