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Are You Being Sexually Harassed By A Customer?

Sexual harassment is a delicate subject, so here's some advice on how to deal with it when it's coming from one of your clients.

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It's not just a boss/employee conflict nor is it only a big-company problem: Sexual harassment in the workplace occurs in a variety of relationships, including those between customers and suppliers. And it doesn't have to be a blatant demand for sex in exchange for business; sexual harassment can take the form of a wide range of inappropriate behaviors, including a client who tells dirty jokes, makes repeated sexual innuendoes or uses offensive language.

As a business owner dealing with a problem with a customer, you don't have legal recourse under the statutes governing sexual harassment in the workplace. Although you may have other legal avenues, depending on the laws in your state and the creativity of your attorney, you probably wouldn't want to get involved in a lawsuit anyway. So here's some advice for dealing with customers who are harassing you:

  • Do a cost/benefit analysis. Consider how much business or profit the customer represents and how much discomfort and distraction the situation is causing. Determine at what point the grief caused by the harassment outweighs the benefit of the business.
  • Consider the motivation. If you can, determine the motive behind the inappropriate behavior. Is the customer deliberately trying to make you uncomfortable? Is he or she trying to establish a power position or trying to make a personal advance? Or is he or she simply unaware of how much the inappropriate behavior offends?
  • Set boundaries. When you're the target of inappropriate behavior, discuss it with the other person in a nonconfrontational manner and let him or her know you're not going to tolerate it.
  • Change the contact environment. If you've been meeting with the client at your home or in his or her private office, consider changing the location to somewhere public, such as a restaurant or a more open location at the customer's facility. You should also try to cut back on face-to-face contact and conduct business over the phone or via e-mail. This not only reduces the opportunity for offensive behavior but also lets you avoid a potentially uncomfortable confrontation.

If you find you're having a hard time developing an effective action plan for dealing with the harassment, you might want to consider a therapy session with a counselor. A good therapist can help you understand your feelings and come up with a solution that's comfortable and workable for you.