HR Expert: Customer Harassment

My client has received a grievance from an employee that one of their female employees is being sexually harassed by a longstanding customer. What should they do about this?

When it comes to safeguarding staff from harassment, employer’s efforts are often focussed on ensuring individuals are not subject to harassment by their colleagues. Whilst this is a necessary consideration in the workplace, employers should be careful not to overlook the considerable risk that is also posed by customers, contracts and other third parties.

Your client may believe that there is no need to act in this scenario, as they can no longer be held liable for third party harassment since this was removed from the Equality Act in October 2013.  However, whilst they may not personally be open to any discrimination claims, your client should still work to ensure the safety of staff at all times. A failure to do something about this could actually lead to claims of constructive unfair dismissal if the employee in question is forced to resign from their role due to a lack of action on the employer’s part.

It is important that your client does not dismiss this complaint and should instead invite the employee in question to raise this as a formal grievance if they have not done so already. Following this, your client should carry out a full investigation into the matter and consider if the employee may need to have their work duties amended temporarily, due to the risk of further harassment from the particular customer.

Your client must not attempt to sweep this incident under the rug just because the customer is longstanding and this should never be accepted as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour. Instead, your client should gather as much evidence as possible before addressing this with the customer and taking appropriate action where necessary.

Deciding on what course of action to take will be dependent on the nature of the act, as harassment can take several forms. As a guide, your client may want to consider how they would respond if one of their own employees had behaved in this way. In less severe cases a strong word with the customer may be appropriate, coupled with a warning that they will take additional action if this occurs again. However, in more serious circumstances you may consider withdrawing services from the customer along with reporting the incident to the relevant authorities.

Once appropriate action has been taken your client should inform the employee who made the original allegation, allowing them a chance to appeal should they wish. Taking this transparent approach will be important in removing any suggestion of bias and help cultivate a positive and safe working environment.

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