You’ve met the predatory client and possibly even tangled with him. He or she makes life difficult for your staff, particularly your front desk employees, and possibly even for you because his status as a client enables him to do so. Often he represents hundreds of thousands of dollars in billings. Do legal practices have a responsibility to protect their employees and other clients from a client that sexually harass them?
Protecting your clients and staff from a client who harasses
Last November, Randi Zuckerberg tweeted: “Feeling disgusted & degraded after an @AlaskaAir flight where the passenger next to me made repeated lewd sexual remarks. The flight attendants told me he was a frequent flier, brushed off his behavior & kept giving him drinks. I guess his $ means more than our safety?” The tweet went viral. More than twenty-six thousand individuals “liked” her November 30th tweet, and nearly thirteen thousand retweeted it.
Zuckerberg attached to the tweet the letter she sent to Alaska’s Airlines CEO, letting her followers know the passenger rated women’s bodies, touched himself, and asked her if she fantasized about a female business college. After she told the flight attendants, they suggested she not take it personally as he frequently traveled the route and offered to reseat her in a middle seat at the back of the plane. As all this happened before the plane took off; flight attendants could have reseated the man, perhaps between two large male passengers, or escorted him off the plane. Instead, they left her to suffer his presence.
Zuckerberg reported she was furious with the airlines for knowingly providing the male passenger a platform for harassing women. Alaska Airlines has since revoked the male passenger’s travel privileges pending the outcome of the investigation they’ve launched.
Did Zuckerberg expect too much? No. According to Steve Koteff, human rights commission senior attorney, “There’s no grey area here. An airline may not discriminate against someone through its customers any more than it may do so directly. Companies engaged in customer service must ensure that the people providing that service are properly equipped to deal with this kind of behavior. Ms. Zuckerberg’s complaint suggests a corporate culture where employees may be uncertain about their responsibilities to protect customers from harassment to the point they become complicit in it. Clearer guidance, and dependable assurance that employees will not suffer consequences for doing the right thing may be what’s needed here.”
According to a retired attorney and long-term HR consultant Rick Birdsall, law office managers need to ask themselves “whose environment is it?” and realize the legal phrase is “hostile work “environment” for a reason. Says Birdsall, “Court decisions consistently find that employers have a duty to prevent or take reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, and this includes everyone in it. This means that employers need to take action whether it’s a co-worker, manager, contractor, or a client that behaves inappropriately. Whether it is an aircraft in the sky, a boat on the water or a law office, the employer needs to police it prevent or address sexual harassment.”
Protecting your employees from a client who harasses
What about the client who harasses your front desk or other staff or even clients he or she meets in the waiting area?
According to Koteff, “Customer preference is not a license to either discriminate or allow an employee to be discriminated against. Business owners may feel they’re between a rock and a hard place when they receive reports about customers’ inappropriate behavior, but there is only one legally appropriate response when informed about harassment of their employees: They must take prompt reasonable measures to end the harassment and ensure that it does not happen again. This almost always means confronting the customer about the behavior, regardless of how that may impact the company’s bottom line.”
Koteff adds, “Whether measures are reasonable can depend on the degree of control the company has over the situation. If an ongoing customer relationship is anticipated, the company should follow up to determine how the customer addressed the complaints. If the response does not seem adequate, ending the relationship may be necessary.”
Concrete steps to take
Here are other steps law office managers can take to prevent client harassment:
- Take employee complaints about clients seriously.
- Train supervisors and employees to professionally intervene when they see inappropriate conduct.
- Review your practice’s policies related to harassment and discrimination and realize that policies need to “live” off the paper they’re printed on. This means they need to be enforced and front-line employees need to know what authority they have to remedy a problem.
Create in your firm a corporate culture in which respect lives. In the same way, it’s harder to litter in a clean area, a professional environment discourages the crass behavior.
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP and author of “Beating the Workplace Bully,” AMACOM 2016, and “Solutions” founded The Growth Company, Inc., an Avitus Group company, and is now a Regional Director of Training & Business Consulting for Avitus. Curry and her group regularly work with law firms and professional associations such as the Alaska Association of Legal Administrators and the Alaska Bar Association. Curry and her team provide HR On-call, training, expert witness work, facilitation, strategic planning, investigation, mediation and executive and professional coaching. The Avitus Group has offices from coast to coast. You can reach her @ www.thegrowthcompany.com or LCurry@avitusgroup.com.