Not Your Ordinary Haircut: Does Your Sexual Harassment Policy Prohibit Harassment by Contractors?

Harassment policy independent contractor

From the Library of Congress digital collection.

This photo came with the description: “One of a series of images of a man harassing a woman as he cuts her hair.” Tip: don’t try this at home.

There are (unfortunately) many ways to harass a woman, most without scissors. Harassment can be by supervisors or fellow employees, but sometimes it comes from independent contractors.

Your company has a sexual harassment policy. Does it prohibit harassment of employees by contractors and other non-employees?

It should. Federal law creates a claim for sexual harassment if the harassment is by another employee, especially a supervisor. But the path toward a sexual harassment claim against a company for conduct by its independent contractors is less obvious. A hostile work environment claim can be asserted if a company knows of — and permits — a work environment that includes harassment by contractors, but a company’s control over contractors and their actions is going to be more limited than its control over its employees.

Your policy should fill the gap.

By creating a policy that takes a stance against harassment by independent contractors and other third parties, your company enhances its position in the event of a claim. Plus, it’s the right thing to do. If you hear of such a claim, investigate it. You may need to do something about it. That may include terminating the relationship with the contractor.

The policy should also say that conduct may be in violation of company policy even if the conduct is not prohibited by law. In other words, you are not conceding that you can control what your contractors do, and you are not conceding that there’s a viable legal claim. But you are taking a position against harassing behavior as a matter of policy.

The caption at the bottom of the photo above is small, but it says, “Getting his hair banged.”  I haven’t the slightest idea what that means, but it sounds bad. I would prohibit that too.

© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Can Your Business Be Liable for Sexual Harassment by an Independent Contractor?

Independent contractors sexual harassment

Damage can come from unexpected places.

Earlier this year, Brock Holt of the Boston Red Sox landed on baseball’s Injured List after his two-year old son poked him in the eye. Baseball players accept the risk of injury, but that’s not a way you’d expect to get hurt.

I think you see where I’m going here. Don’t let an independent contractor become Brock Holt’s son. Yes, a business can be liable for harassment by a contractor — if it fails to respond appropriately to a complaint. If one of your employees complains of harassment by a contractor, pay attention.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), businesses can be liable for harassment by non-employees if the business knows about the harassment and fails to take reasonable steps to prevent it. EEOC Guidance says:

The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

That means you can’t just say, “It’s not our employee so we can’t do anything about it.” Investigate. Interview witnesses. Take statements. If there’s something there, act upon it.

If the bad actor is a contractor, options may include:

  1. Terminating the independent contractor relationship, 
  2. Limiting the contractor’s access to your facility,
  3. Poking out the contractor’s eye (or both eyes, if the harassment is particularly egregious), or 
  4. Any other steps to prevent bad behavior. 

My wife, who is in HR, says #3 is not an appropriate response, so I stand corrected. Don’t do #3. The other options are still good though.

As for #4, you should not discipline an independent contractor, but you can issue a stern warning to that contractor that the relationship will be terminated if there are any further complaints. Just don’t call it “discipline.” Disciplinary action is a sign of control, which can be used as evidence that the contractor might really be an employee. The last thing you need if one of your employees is being harassed by a contractor is to convert that contractor into your employee. 

Whatever you decide, do something.

While businesses might not expect that they could be held liable for bad acts by a contractor, the risk is real. Employers have a responsibility to provide their workers with a workplace that is free from harassment. If you allow a contractor to create a hostile work environment, your business can be liable for allowing that environment to persist. The employer’s responsibility is to take “prompt and appropriate corrective action.” 

For Brock Holt, terminating the relationship with the wayward eye-poker was not an option. (His wife reportedly vetoed that proposal. She is probably in HR.) But for businesses whose contractors are accused of harassing employees, terminating the relationship may be the best decision. 

So the answer is yes. Business have a responsibility to provide a workplace that is free from harassment, and the failure to do so may result in liability, even if the harassment is coming from a non-employee. Busiensses can be liable for harassment by contractors if the business knows or should know about the harassment and fails to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

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