Companies must stop harassment by non-employees

Everyone knows that a business can be sued if an employee is harassed because of race, sex, religion, etc., and the company doesn’t take appropriate action. But did you know that a business can sometimes be sued even if the harasser doesn’t work for the company?

That’s right – businesses have a legal duty to protect their workers from harassment by third parties they come into contact with in the course of their work, including clients, customers, contractors, vendors, security guards, maintenance workers, caterers and others.

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Of course, a company has no direct control over these people’s actions, and it can’t simply “fire” someone who doesn’t work for it. But an employer still has to investigate the situation and take reasonable steps to stop the harassment to the extent possible.

In North Carolina, a black saleswoman for a tile company claimed she had been subjected to a barrage of racial and sexual abuse by a sales representative for a major client. She said her boss acknowledged that the sales rep was a “pig,” but did nothing to help. She was allowed to sue the company for not taking steps to keep the sales rep away from her.

In Hawaii, an employee at a medical clinic claimed she was subjected to verbal harassment and threats of violence by a male patient. The clinic rejected her requests to change the patient’s treatment schedule so she wouldn’t have to work with him, and then fired her when she went ahead and changed his schedule anyway.

A federal court allowed the woman to sue, saying the clinic had an obligation to keep its employees from facing a “hostile work environment,” even if the problem was caused by a patient.

It’s important to note that, under the law, a company can’t simply “solve” the problem by putting the employee in a worse position. For example, it can’t demote someone so that he or she no longer has to deal with certain customers or vendors. Also, it can’t retaliate against an employee later for complaining.

Your advance medical directive won’t help if no one can find it

An advance medical directive gives instructions on the kind of medical care you’d like to receive if you become unable to express your wishes yourself, and it often designates someone to make medical decisions for you. This document is an important part of a complete estate plan – but it won’t be of much value in an emergency if it’s tucked away in a safe deposit box or in a file cabinet where no one can easily find it.

It’s a good idea to carry a card in your wallet or purse saying that you have such a directive, and telling medical personnel how to access it. For instance, if you routinely carry a cell phone or tablet with you, you could upload it as a file on your device.

There are a growing number of software programs, apps and cloud-based options that offer to store such documents and make them available in an emergency. Also, about a dozen states have established online registries for advance directives.

But the most important step is to have an advance directive in the first place. Most Americans still don’t – and that can create very difficult quandaries for loved ones in a crisis.