There remains a misperception that workplace sexual harassment must involve a company employee, e.g., a quid-pro-quo supervisor or sketchy co-worker who tries to corner you physically in uncomfortable ways. Those definitely apply, but there are other circumstances of on-the-job sexual harassment that don’t involve company employees.
Clients and customers can also illegally harass you sexually in the workplace. What, then, can an employee do?
Recognize it for what it truly is
The relationship between you and your company’s clients can be somewhat nebulous. You are supposed to wow them with your proposals and woo them from your competitors over to your company. That may involve a series of lunches, dinners and even business trips together or when you meet them in their location.
Perhaps it is in some ways understandable that the lines may get blurred a bit in these quasi-friendship relationships. While the client is not your actual friend, it’s perceived by the company as a very good thing to have a friendly, even jocular, relationship with favored clients.
What to do when a line gets crossed
Maybe you had some pre-dinner drinks and then the client wanted to split a bottle of red over dinner. During the meal, if they then spoke inappropriately or got touchy-feely with you, how would you react?
Of course, no company wants to lose a major client. Should you pretend it never happened? Chalk it up to too much alcohol? Verbalize that you want the unwanted conversation or touching to stop? All three responses could have unwelcome consequences.
You have a right not to be sexually harassed at work
While a restaurant booth is not your office, when entertaining a client, it becomes your temporary workspace. That allows you to reclaim it as such and let them know that you are only interested and invested in your business relationship with them. Later, write and email a memo to yourself detailing what occurred and how you reacted.
Should the harassment persist or escalate, your duty to protect yourself should be paramount. Notify your boss and HR head of the harassment. If they fail to support your claims or dismiss your concerns, you may want to take further legal action against the company for workplace sexual harassment.