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HR SOLUTIONS: ASK A SHRM HR KNOWLEDGE ADVISOR
Our employee has been harassed by a nonemployee.
How should I handle this? A ddress it in the same manner you would allegations of harassment by another employee. In light of the #Me Too movement, it’s more import- ant than ever to do so promptly and appropriately. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defnes a nonemployee as any
individual an employer has control over. That could be a customer (who can
be refused service), an independent contractor (whose business relationship
may be terminated) or just about any individual who has direct interactions
with employees that the employer can infuence in some way.
While most businesses have policies in place on how to address workplace
harassment, many fail to specify how the issue should be handled when it
involves nonemployees. That’s a missed opportunity, since employers are obligated to protect workers from harassment, regardless of who the harasser is,
under federal legislation—including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act—and state and local nondiscrimination statutes.
When an employee claims that a nonemployee is harassing him or her,
typically the frst action you should take is to conduct an investigation. Just
as you would in any other instance of potential harassment, interview the
witnesses and document the steps you take and the information you gather.
In some instances, however, an immediate response may be warranted. For
example, you might need to tell a customer to stop acting inappropriately, reassign a disrespectful client’s account to another employee or have a troublesome patient check in with a diferent receptionist to avoid any further interaction with the worker who lodged the complaint. It’s important to remember
that once an employee has brought forward a concern or claim, it becomes a
protected activity and you cannot retaliate or take any adverse action against
that person for exercising his or her rights.
Ignoring a complaint involving a nonemployee could result in liability,
according to the EEOC, particularly in cases where an employer knew or
should have known of the harassment but failed to take immediate and
appropriate action. The EEOC states that “the
Commission will consider the extent of the
employer’s control and any other legal
responsibility which the employer
may have with respect to the conduct
To mitigate your risk, clearly
communicate to your workforce that
unwelcome harassment will not be tol-
erated from anyone—including non-
employees. Make sure you establish an
efective complaint process, provide
harassment training to both managers
and employees, and, most important,
take immediate action when a com-
plaint has been communicated.
—Brenda Ortega, SHRM-CP, an HR
Knowledge Advisor for SHRM
HR Q&As, go to