What Happens When Clients Go Too Far?

Today’s Wall Street Journal features this harrowing story: While attending a conference, a female employee suddenly finds herself being groped and kissed in an elevator by a senior executive, who then follows the woman down the hallway to her hotel room despite her repeated attempts to get him to leave her alone. He grabs her by the back of the neck and attempts to push her into the room, telling her “You want it,” and only leaves after she sits down in the hallway and refuses to budge.

Sounds like a straightforward example of sexual assault that should result in the senior executive’s immediate firing, with charges to possibly follow, right? Well, in this particular case the senior executive was an extremely important client of the woman’s firm, and she had been reminded by her boss earlier that day of how important it was for the firm to cultivate a good business relationship with him. Although her experience had left her terrified, “In the back of my mind, I was thinking: ‘This guy’s a business partner,’ ” she told the WSJ. The woman has since left the company and has filed a lawsuit against the executive and the company he worked for.

In the age of #MeToo, most employers have a heightened sensitivity to allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. What’s problematic, however, is when the harassing behavior comes not from one employee to another, but from an outside client. Managers may be wary of addressing the behavior of someone over whom they believe they have little authority, HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann told the WSJ. “When money is on the line, those conversations often don’t take place,” she said.

Female employees, who may be understandably reluctant to jeopardize the financial success of their firm or potentially undermine their own careers, often decide against reporting harassment by a client: A recent poll of more than 7,000 female sales representatives by the National Association of Women Sales Professionals found that 57 percent reported receiving sexual advances or other harassing behavior by clients; only 25 percent of those women alerted a superior about it. NAWSP CEO Cynthia Barnes told the WSJ that her organization plans to start urging companies to develop anti-harassment policies specifically for clients.

Companies have often struggled over how to address harassment of their employees by clients. The WSJ story includes several examples, including that of former AztraZeneca sales representative Katherine Cozad, who alleged in a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that it hadn’t done enough to protect her after she was sexually assaulted by a family practice physician while on a sales call at his office. She reported the alleged incident to her manager, who said Cozad no longer had to call on the doctor and stopped sending other primary-care sales reps to him, according to depositions from AstraZeneca supervisors. However, another AstraZeneca sales team continued to visit the doctor and the company didn’t admonish or question the doctor about Cozad’s allegations against him, the supervisors testified.

AstraZeneca later settled Cozad’s lawsuit. The company told the WSJ that when it learns of such behavior, it tells any employee interacting with the doctor in question that they can stop making calls at that doctor’s office or only visit in pairs and that, in some cases, it has dropped doctors altogether from its call lists.

Some companies have a policy of immediately reporting harassing behavior directly to the organization a client works for. Francine Katsoudas, chief people officer at Cisco Systems, told the WSJ that when one of its sales representatives reported that she’d been harassed by someone at a Cisco client, a senior manager at Cisco alerted her counterpart at the client, who then removed the person from the Cisco account.

Katsoudas acknowledged that such situations can be risky because of the potential business implications, but “we’re very clear on what the right thing to do is.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.