When we consider harassment in the workplace, the picture of a male employer and female subordinate is often the first that comes to mind. However, that is not an accurate depiction of all potential harassment situations. Harassment in the workplace can involve people of any sex, gender expression or position. One situation that we often forget or disregard is third-party harassment.

Third-party harassment is when an employee experiences harassment from a third party outside of the company. This can include harassment from customers, clients, vendors, contractors, patrons and suppliers.

The customer may be wrong

When in customer service, we are often pushed to believe that “the customer is always right!” However, this is often not the reality when customers are inappropriate or even abusive towards employees. Potential clients may request sexual favors in exchange for business, or vendors may make offensive remarks about an employee’s race. No matter the details of an encounter or who is involved, harassment is unacceptable.

Dealing with third-party harassment

Even though it may seem that an employer has little authority over a customer or other harasser outside of the company, they still should address the issue. If you experience third-party harassment, first notify your boss or supervisor.

The Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act all prohibit third-party harassment against employees. This includes harassment on the basis of sex, sexuality, race, disability and age. If employers know of third-party harassment, they should investigate and take corrective action.

Harassment in the workplace can change your sense of safety and ability to do your job. We should not brush away or ignore harassment, even when it comes from customers or clients.