Acme customer makes loading dock efficiency difficult

When an overbearing customer crosses the line with Acme's primary dock handler, a lawsuit is filed.  What can be done to prevent harassment in the workplace?

Acme sells its products through independent reps and distributors. Because most local customers already have trucks plying the region, they pick up their orders themselves rather than rely on common carriers. In fact, Acme has set aside two docks specifically for express pickups.

Because Acme sees quick turnaround as a competitive advantage, those working the express docks adopted the simple slogan, “pure efficiency.” Achieving it is sometimes difficult because trucks arrive in unpredictable waves and many drivers don’t speak English.

Much of the docks’ success can be attributed to Rose Eddaston. She’s Acme’s very own Miss Personality; she speaks three languages fluently. Rose handles drivers in their native language and gives each a personalized reason to do business with Acme. Even when things are busy and chaotic, Rose never gives anyone an excuse to patronize the competition. She’s good at what she does and operates as if the department were her own, delivering beyond everyone’s expectations.

Reps and distributors ask for her by name. Rose even gets invited to customer parties, picnics and baseball games. She appreciates the contact and the social opportunities her job provides. Otherwise, she’d be sitting at home on weekends with not much to do.

At 40-something, Rose is the scholarly type. Not particularly attractive by contemporary standards, she remains unmarried. But Rose compensates for a nearly empty private life by viewing her job as a relationship business. It’s her arena, the space where she feels confident, the space that provides her with great psychic reward.

Sonny Faghun, a loyal customer and Acme’s largest independent distributor, makes bimonthly trips to collect his orders from the express docks. Rose looks forward to talking to him because she enjoys his witty repartee and philosophical discourse about current events, sports and the political machinations of the mayor and city council. Like Rose, Sonny is single.

Recently, Sonny began stopping in more often, explaining that he’s trying to institute his version of a just-in-time delivery scheme. Picking up smaller loads twice as often was his new strategy. It also gave him twice the opportunity to visit Rose.

Rose noticed other changes. For example, Sonny always seemed to find a way to compliment Rose on her clothing, jewelry or hair. This change in their long-established routine caught Rose by surprise at first. After all, it wasn’t often that someone said nice things about her attire. Nevertheless, the flattery gave her a warm and fuzzy feeling. And she could feel herself blush each time Sonny, that silver-tongued devil, paid her another compliment.

A few weeks later, in the middle of a busy day, her phone rang and she was surprised to hear Sonny on the line, who had called just to make small talk. Torn between an awareness of his importance to Acme’s bottom line and getting through her backlog, Rose played it in a cordial, but distracted, manner. Each time she tried to end the conversation, Sonny tried even harder to keep her on the line.

When he showed up for his pickup the next day, Sonny was oblivious to the work Rose had in front of her as he tried to chat her up. Rose was of a mixed mind, realizing that any time spent in small talk slowed her down. Even so, she appreciated Sonny’s compliments.

After a while, Sonny began calling her at least twice a day, ostensibly for some business reason, but always with more of the sweet talk he knew she liked. Rose found the attention flattering but inconvenient because it upset her work routine. One day, she simply told him she didn’t have time to socialize during the day and couldn’t chat on the office phone. Sonny then began sending her e-mails, each trying to wrangle a dinner date and movie or an outing to the local Friday-night high-school football game.

When she didn’t respond to his repeated advances, Rose began receiving explicit e-mails and jokes that Sonny had forwarded at night. Rose realized that Sonny had crossed the line and she went to her boss, Dan Drough, Acme’s resident shipping guru. As Rose narrated her saga, Dan sat there amazed. He had known nothing about this and listened intently, especially the part where Rose said she doesn’t care how much money Sonny spends on Acme products, she doesn’t want to deal with him any more.

When Sonny arrived the next day, Dan intercepted him before he could enter the building and escorted him to an office for a closed-door tete-a-tete. After Sonny confirmed Rose’s story, Dan told him to knock it off and leave the lady alone. Sonny feigned ignorance and claimed that anything he might have done was no big deal, just talking jive. Sonny didn’t understand why Dan was getting so bent out of shape over nothing.

Dan told Sonny that he is not to call Rose or send her any more e-mail. From now on, Dan is the only person that Sonny is to interact with when he’s on Acme property. After Sonny left, Dan reported the substance of the meeting to Rose.

A week later, early in her shift, Rose received another phone call from Sonny. She merely hung up on him, called an attorney to initiate a suit against Acme for harassment and a hostile workplace. Then she punched out and went home.

[i]How could this situation have been avoided? Would better operating procedures have helped? To what extent can a company interfere with social issues? Is the customer always right?[i]

An attorney says:

Either Acme or Rose herself could have avoided this unfortunate situation easily. Acme could have avoided it by the simple measure of telling Rose that if Sonny contacted her again, she needed to notify Dan Drough immediately. Rose could have alleviated the situation had she contacted Dan when Sonny didn’t heed his warning. At that point, Dan would have needed to take further action against Sonny, perhaps even ceasing to do business with him.

As a matter of federal law, as well as the law in most states, an employer has a legal obligation to provide an employee with a work environment that is free from harassment on the basis of sex or any other legally protected characteristic. Harassment occurring at the hands of a vendor or customer, when it affects the employee’s work environment, is just as illegal as harassment committed by another employee.

This is one of those cases in which the customer isn’t always right. Acme acted properly by investigating Rose’s complaint promptly and just as promptly acted to remedy the situation. Dan took reasonable steps to prevent any further harassment from occurring by telling Sonny not to contact Rose. Had Rose reported to him that Sonny persisted in his efforts despite Dan’s warning, Dan would have needed to take further action to remedy the situation.

Special problems exist when the harasser is a customer or vendor of the company. In many cases, employers simply notify the customer or vendor that the harassing individual is not to call on the company in the future or that the customer or vendor needs to assign another individual to the employer’s account. In this case, however, it appears that Sonny is the entire “company,” and if Acme knew he persisted in courting Rose, it might be obligated to cease doing business with him in order to fulfill its obligation to provide Rose with a workplace untainted by unwanted overtures.

As for Sonny, perhaps if he confined his contact with Rose to her nonworking hours and invited her on a more interesting date, she might not find his advances so unwelcome.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com

A corporate consultant says:

Rose has overreacted. Not only did she get a sympathetic and immediately action-oriented response from Dan, she also got feedback from him about what he had done. Additionally, in hanging up on Sonny's last phone call, she had no way of knowing if it was actually a business call or a call to apologize.

Here's how the situation might have been avoided.

First, Dan could have outlined the next step to be taken if Sonny failed to comply with Dan's instruction. This next step should have been in writing, with a copy to Rose, and it should have stated that one more complaint from Rose would result in a legal complaint of harassment being lodged against his company by Acme on Rose's behalf.

Next, upon briefing Rose about his response regarding her complaint, Dan could have asked Rose to keep him informed of any further instances of Sonny’s inappropriate contact. This crystallizes his willingness to act on her behalf if further actions were needed.

Finally, both she and Dan could have tried to anticipate what might occur next, developing solutions in advance of the need for them. For example, in anticipation of further phone calls from Sonny, Dan could have instructed Rose simply to transfer the calls to him.

On behalf of Acme, Dan performed admirably in this case. Rose's suit against Acme is unfair.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
fmdalton@daltonalliances.com

An academician says:

Social interaction between a company’s staff and customers is common, quite appropriate and usually makes good business sense. Parties, ball games, golf outings and the exchange of gifts helps keep people aware of you and your products.

However, all of this should be seen as playing a very small part, something with little influence on the overall conduct of business. Receiving a couple of tickets to a golf outing or a baseball game shouldn’t have a significant effect on business decision. To make sure these factors are kept out of the business equation, most companies set rules about such interactions. For example, there may be a $50 or $100 limit on gifts given or received.

The point is that Rose was probably behaving appropriately when she attended parties and picnics sponsored by her customers -- as long as these interactions didn’t affect her business decisions. Sonny probably could have given her a small token of appreciation, such as a box of candy to share with coworkers, which probably would have been quite appropriate. I say probably because different companies have different rules.

However, Sonny’s advances and intentions went well beyond a small gift of appreciation, and Rose quite justifiably blew the whistle on him. One might fault Rose for not telling him to stop sooner, but often the boundary between what’s appropriate and what isn’t is not totally clear. When it became clear that he had crossed the boundary, Rose took the proper action.

I think Acme acted properly here. The supervisors took Rose seriously and jumped on Sonny immediately. And they took further action to keep Sonny away from Rose. So, I don’t think Rose has much of a case against Acme. Could it have been avoided? Maybe if Rose had told Sonny to back off sooner. Or, maybe if Acme had a strict “no fraternization” policy in effect. But I think not. Sonny seemed to be smitten by Rose and probably would have persisted regardless. I tend to see this as one of those unfortunate events that occasionally arises in business life, and I’m not sure we have any easy way to avoid them.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu

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