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Zero Tolerance

Even nonemployees must be held accountable to the law.

By now, employers should know they have a legal responsibility to protect their employees from sexual harassment and to act on any complaints, including those against independent contractors, vendors and anyone else who frequents the workplace.

A recent case at Washington County Hospital in Nashville, Illinois, involved a doctor who had a habit of intimidating female nurses. When one of the nurses sued her employer, the district judge ruled that because the doctor was an independent contractor, the hospital was not responsible for his conduct.

That argument didn't fly with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case back for trial. Renowned judge Frank Easterbrook found that once an employer receives a complaint of sexual harassment, it doesn't matter whether or not the employer can "control" the offender. In fact, the judge declared, "it makes no difference whether the actor is human." Suppose, he said, a patient kept a macaw in his room, one that bit and scratched female employees. Although the bird was not an employee and could not be controlled by reasoning or sanctions, the hospital would be liable for failing to exclude it from its premises.

"The employer's responsibility," the judge wrote, "is to provide its employees with nondiscriminatory working conditions." Period.

Jane Easter Bahlis a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.

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This article was originally published in the October 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Zero Tolerance.

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