Beware Of Client Sexual Harassment

Jane Abbott (not her real name) is a civil engineer with a master's degree in public administration. She's also a rising star in a prominent waste management consulting firm.

After finishing a business dinner with a male client from out of town, she accompanied him to a nearby taxi stand. The client climbed into the cab, and then suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her inside.

"He kissed me and asked me to go with him to his hotel and look at pictures of his girlfriend," said Abbott. She struggled with the client for a few seconds and finally broke free, slamming the cab door behind her.

The following day she reported the incident to "Frank Baker," the manager of her firm's branch office. Baker's response was unequivocal: "We can't tolerate this kind of behavior by a client." Abbott then telephoned the client to tell him that it would be best if another consulting firm handled his company's projects.

Such flagrant behavior from clients may be relatively rare. Still, some professional women report that they must deal with sexual harassment not only by bosses and colleagues, but even by their own clients.

For men and women alike, professional advancement is often linked to one's ability to attract clients and nurture business relationships. Unfortunately, keeping a major client happy is often more important to a company's management than submitting to thin-skinned employees or notions of political correctness.

Most companies have strict rules against sexual harassment by management and staff. However, few firms have a policy on sexual harassment by clients, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"It's not an issue people voice," said a woman partner in a major Los Angeles law firm. "But it's always been a difficult question. Do I address it within the firm or do I keep it to myself because I don't want to miss out [on a business opportunity]?"

A company without a definite policy on harassment risks liability if a victim takes the matter to court. The nature and degree of legal exposure, however, is not clear: few, if any, decisions involving client sexual harassment have been published.

Labor law experts say that when a client sexually harasses his lawyer, accountant, engineering or waste management consultant or any other professional, the legal issue is the same as in garden variety workplace misconduct: Did the victim's employer know (or should the employer have known) about the situation and fail to act promptly or, worse, not at all?

Professional and consulting firms can be held accountable for harassment that occurs outside the office if the incidents happen when the victim is engaged in the company's business. If a consulting firm transfers an engineer or chemist to another project rather than take issue with the client, the firm could end up being sued for retaliation.

Not every consulting firm acts as quickly as Abbott's. Take for example the case of "Sandra Phillips" who, as a mid-level engineer in a fast-growing regional firm, sat across the table from a client who looked her in the eye and said, "I think I'm in love." Phillips ignored the comment, and never told her boss about the incident because she did not want to appear overly sensitive. Later, on another project, a client shouted at her for not having been "more aggressive" in responding to state environmental inspectors and also made other critical remarks of her performance. She decided to report this behavior to her project manager.

"This is unacceptable. I'm not going to be treated like that," Phillips recalled saying. The project manager agreed with her. "He said, 'I'm going to tell him he can take his business elsewhere,'" she said.

However, the firm did not confront the client. Instead, she was told not to talk or meet with the client again, and the project manager began handling all contact with the client.

It's not always evident how to respond properly in these circumstances, especially when a client's behavior is subtle. Professionals are in the business of serving clients and, in some instances, it can be a mistake to say to the client: "Take your business elsewhere."

Professional consulting firms must act "reasonably" to protect managers and staff from client sexual harassment - even though they have virtually no control over the way a client behaves.

"The clearest thing is that you have to do something," said Barbara Bryant, a lecturer at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. "[You can do a lot of things] that don't necessarily result in the loss of the client. If it's done right, the client can even wind up respecting you more."