Occasionally, when we propose discrimination and sexual harassment training, clients push back. “We would never hire the kind of person
who would use racial epithets,” they say. “We would never hire someone who would sexually harass other employees.” Well, maybe not. But your employees aren’t the only ones you have to worry about. Recently a couple cases hit the news in which it was a customer and an independent contractor who were the culprits. In any case, if you don’t know how to protect employees, and employees don’t know how to protect themselves, you can still be held liable for the abuse.
In the two cases I’m mentioning, one was a grocery chain where a customer regularly harassed employees and even fondled the women. The other was an independent contractor who used insulting racial terms towards non-white employees and showed employees a picture of a naked woman saying “This is what I left in my bed to come here.” Classy. In both cases, the company was successfully sued for exposing its employees to the abuse.
Employees can’t be expected to know, intuitively, what to do if someone abuses them. Without training, they might let the abuse go on, not wanting to lose the customer or not knowing what steps they can take to protect themselves. Or they might inform a manager who is equally uninformed about how to deal with the situation. As a business owner or executive director of a non-profit, you’re not going to know everything that goes on in your shop at all times. But if a lawsuit comes, that’s not a valid defense.
You can empower employees to protect themselves just with a two-hour class once a year that tells them what constitutes abuse and what they can do about it. You can establish a reporting chain wherein employees who have been the targets of racial discrimination or sexual harassment can tell a specific manager who has obligations to address the issue. That manager is given recourse. He or she can speak to the employee, vendor or customer and tell them if it happens again, they’re out. Or the manager can let the person go on the spot. In the case of the groping customer, calling the police would have been a good choice. Then, if that manager fails to handle it, the employee knows who to turn to next. As head of the organization you must put systems in place to protect your employees rather than just assuming everyone will behave the way they should. People often don’t, you know.
In another case, when employees sued their employer because harassment they’d faced from an employee, the business owner was able to show that he’d offered discrimination training. That he’d given the employee consequences for his behavior. That he’d demonstrated zero tolerance for that behavior. As a result, the federal courts said the employer did the best he could to protect his employees and the suit was thrown out.
Of course you’d like to believe that you only work with angels. But discrimination can come from anyone. The guy who delivers your supplies, the woman who audits your records. You can’t be everywhere all the time. And you can save yourself a lot of money and a PR disaster by making sure your employees know how to protect themselves.