Even Nonemployees Can Create Hostile Work Environments

We usually think of harassment cases as involving co-workers or supervisors and subordinates, but nonemployees can also create harassment liability for your company.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of Lori Freeman, an African-American customer service employee, who endured inappropriate racial and sexual comments by a nonemployee salesperson for several years. Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp. (4th Cir. 2014). When Freeman reported the salesperson’s behavior to her supervisor, she allegedly responded by shaking her head or rolling her eyes. Freeman’s supervisor reportedly took no action against the salesperson to curtail his behavior.

After three years of the salesperson’s offensive behavior, Freeman complained to Dal-Tile’s Human Resources department. Human Resources banned the salesperson from speaking to Freeman, but Freeman still filed a hostile work environment harassment claim. The Fourth Circuit concluded Dal-Tile did not act quickly enough to stop the harassment. Human Resources’ intervention came too late for the company to avoid liability.

This case emphasizes the importance of training your supervisors on how to receive and respond to employee reports of inappropriate conduct, even if the offending individual is not an employee.