A recent Bloomberg Law piece highlighted a case of workplace discrimination at a nursing home where white clients were harassing nurses of color.
Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers can be liable if third-party harassment occurs on their property, even if it’s only a standalone incident with a one-time client.
What can employers do to reduce their liability risk in such cases?
In the nursing home case, the manager ignored and downplayed nurses’ complaints, which prompted a lawsuit. Managers should receive training on how to handle harassment claims and be equipped with an outline of possible responses or actions, depending on the situation.
Sometimes simply the perception of support and action by management can prevent harassment disputes from escalating. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but dismissing employee complaints should be at the top of the list of things not to do.
In cases when a customer is harassing staff, management always has the option of demanding that the customer leave the premises. If the customer persists or refuses to leave, the next step is a call to police.
If it’s a long-term client, like in the nursing home case, it may be necessary to cut ties with the client if the issue cannot be resolved through mediation. A short-term loss of revenue from expelling a client is a drop in the bucket compared to a lengthy and public lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Some customers and clients are going to be difficult. That’s the price of doing business. But employees should never feel as if they have no choice but to absorb abuse.
Communicate to employees that reports of harassment are encouraged and will be taken seriously, whether it be a customer, coworker or manager. Employees should never feel as if complaining about harassment could jeopardize their jobs.
When a couple upset by mask mandates decided to protest by wearing face coverings with swastikas while shopping at a Walmart, the company promptly banned the couple. Walmart also released a strongly worded statement denouncing such behavior. Decisive actions like this can curtail lawsuits.
There will be occasions when complaints are unfounded, made in bad faith or in reprisal for unrelated offenses. A skilled manager or HR representative should know how to handle these situations. You may even have to bring in an outside mediator if you don’t have someone on staff that’s equipped to handle such delicate issues.