Why it matters: Employers, take note: harassment in the workplace can be committed not just by supervisors and coworkers, but by third parties such as customers, patients, clients, delivery people, or repair workers. The settlement in the Ross case (EEOC v. Southwest Virginia Community Health System) should remind employers that regardless of the source, sexual harassment cannot be tolerated in the workplace – or liability may result.

Detailed Discussion

A $30,000 settlement announced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission serves as a reminder to employers that they can be held liable for third-party sexual harassment.

The agency brought suit on behalf of Karen Ross, a female receptionist at Southwest Virginia Community Health System, Inc., alleging that she was sexually harassed by a male patient. Ross repeatedly complained to her supervisor about the patient’s conduct, but no action was taken to stop the sexual harassment, according to the complaint.

As the EEOC noted in its press release, employers are “liable for acts of a non-employee if the employer knew about the conduct and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”

To settle the charges that it violated Title VII, SVCHS agreed to pay Ross $30,000 and provide her with a letter of reference. In addition, the company promised to refrain from future discrimination or retaliation in violation of Title VII. For a three-year period, SVCHS will report to the EEOC at six-month intervals about any complaints made to the company regarding sexual harassment, with an explanation of the action taken in response.

A revised sexual harassment policy – including a statement that sexual harassment of employees by customers and third parties is prohibited under the SVCHS’s policy and federal law – also must be distributed to current employees and future employees, as well as posted in the workplace, as part of the settlement. Additionally, the company is also required to provide annual training to all employees, including an explanation of Title VII and the rights of employees to be free from third-party sexual harassment.

To read the consent decree in EEOC v. Southwest Virginia Community Health System, Inc., click here.