There is no such things as “Taking One for the Team.”
At a lunch meeting, a former colleague shared concerns he was having about a young woman in his employment who had recently lodged two sexual harassment complaints. He explained that her grievances were justified and that he had handled them immediately. However, the young woman was slated to start an outside sales position and he wanted to have a conversation with her about mitigating the risk of unfavorable encounters from clients or prospects.
“How do I even broach this conversation without sounding as if the company wouldn’t do the right thing? I want her to understand that she can empower herself to control certain situations, but she should absolutely escalate when necessary,” he explained.
“Let your policy do the heavy lifting,” was my answer. It is not at all unusual for harassment to be perpetrated by subcontractors, by clients or by employees of vendors. Women in sales positions, who perform duties at client locations, or are assigned to multi-employer job sites such as construction projects or movie sets are often the victims of harassment, and many women think there is nothing to be done! However, as an employer, if you establish and enforce that your Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy explicitly reaches beyond your workplace borders, you automatically empower all your employees to take the actions they need.
A good Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy, supported by a thorough training program, should explain that every employee has the choice to either ignore, diffuse or escalate a situation when they are feeling harassed. They may actually go through all these stages. Typically, harassment means that unwanted behavior does not stop after the offender has been asked to do so. However, a good policy emphasizes that any words and actions that feel too intimate, make an employee uncomfortable in any way, or are unmistakably harassing are not appropriate. And it is the employer’s responsibility—once informed of the issue—to take care of it. It does not matter if the harasser works for the company’s best client, a crucial vendor, or a desired prospect—the company’s policy should reinforce that it must and will act to protect the employee. Nobody needs to take one for the team!
So, what can be done when the offender is from a third party? Discipline, retraining, or firing are not options—but escalation through proper channels certainly is. Your policy must make it clear that employees who are the victims of harassment by a third-party employee should immediately report the incident to the harasser’s employer, or in the case of a multi-employer work site, talk to the site owner’s human resources. Make it understood that if your employee requests that you handle the matter, you will—and you will escalate until it stops. And if the harassment doesn’t stop, then at the very least, the employee will be reassigned without consequences.