How should you respond when your employees encounter sexually explicit situations? Our experts examine three real-life incidents and weigh in on how a Houston cleaning business owner handled them.
Julie Parish has owned a successful cleaning company, The Home Keepers, for more than 18 years. Her business is located in Houston, Texas. Recently, her cleaning technicians encountered three separate incidents of sexually explicit behavior or materials at three different homes they were cleaning. These unsettling encounters raised many questions about how to handle such situations as a business owner whose employees have been put in highly uncomfortable positions. “What do you say to a client when these things happen? And how do you prepare your employees to deal with these incidents?” asks Parish. “There’s a lot of grey area here. How do you know when you should drop a client? What’s the law on these situations?”
Here’s an overview of the three incidents. The first problem occurred with a new male client. It was The Home Keepers first cleaning at this client’s house. He was at home when Parish’s two, female cleaning technicians arrived. After having been closed off in his master bedroom by himself for quite some time, the client asked the women to clean his master bathroom. As they walked through the master bedroom to access the bathroom, the women realized that the client was watching pornography on his computer. One of them stepped away to call the office and report the situation.
“I told them to pack up and walk out, and don’t say a word,” says Parish. “The man had not been easy to deal with from the start. He’d cursed at one of my employees a few times over the phone and had been extremely rude to me as well, so I chose not to call him about the incident. I waited until he called me, which he did a few days later. He said, “The cleaning ladies told me they were going to their car to get something and never came back.” He asked why they had not returned. I explained that because he was watching porn, I had instructed my employees to leave immediately. I told him that I would not subject my employees to those kinds of things. I told him we wouldn’t be able to clean his house again. As for payment for the hours they’d worked, I told him we’d just call it even. Because of his past behavior, I thought he was going to write a bad review on Angie’s List. Instead, he just said, ‘That’s fine.’ We never heard from him again. We were lucky that time, but it’s difficult to know how to handle these situations with clients.”
The second incident happened only a few days later at the home of another new client. This encounter was much worse. In this case, a long-time client hired Parish’s company to clean her daughter’s home. Three of Parish’s female cleaning technicians showed up at the daughter’s home where they found her with her young daughter and six men. About ten minutes into the cleaning, the female client asked five of the men to go outside to the backyard with the child.
One of Parish’s cleaning technicians was working in the master bathroom when the female client came walking into the master bedroom with the sixth man. She was saying that she was horny and taking off her shirt. The female client and the man began engaging in sexual activities while the cleaning technician
s felt highly disrespected. The technician was so angry and humiliated she gathered up her stuff and walked through the room hollering in Spanish, “We’re leaving! We’re leaving!” The other two cleaning technicians followed her lead, left the house and called Parish from the car.
Parish recalls, “The moment I found out what was happening, I told my employees to come back to the office. I also called the mother – who was actually the person who hired us. I was embarrassed for the mother and didn’t tell her any details. I simply said that my employees were very upset and I needed her daughter’s phone number so I could speak with her directly. I called the daughter. I was just shaking, I was so mad! I told her that I had instructed my employees to leave her house immediately! I explained that they were extremely upset by what she was doing in front of them. I told her that what she did was SO DISRESPECTFUL and that we were ALL extremely upset! The customer apologized to me a couple of times, and asked me to please tell my employees that she was sorry she’d made them feel bad. I believe she was genuinely sorry. My thoughts at the time were, what the heck is happening in this world!”
The last incident was the mildest of the three, but still disconcerting. One of Parish’s cleaning technicians found obscene pictures of two men engaged in sexual acts. The photos were lying across a bathroom countertop. The employee took a snapshot of the photos and sent it to the office. Despite the extremely graphic nature of the photos, Parish’s female technician handled the situation calmly. She gathered the photos, stacked them all together, turned them upside down and moved them to a corner of the room.
“We kept this male client as a customer,” says Parish. “I didn’t know if this was a one-time incident where he’d forgotten to remove the photos. I did not say anything to the client. The cleaning technician didn’t get upset. But what happens if this type of thing happens again. What’s the right course of action then? There are many smaller incidents that my cleaning technicians have to deal with on a regular basis. They find inappropriate things when cleaning bed sheets or bathrooms. I think that sort of problem is fairly widespread. What can a business owner do about those types of smaller incidents? And if you decide that a client has crossed a line and you don’t want to clean for them anymore, what do you say to them?”
Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics
“Training is crucial for these types of situations,” advises Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a company which has been helping employers standardize and systemize the way they recruit, select and retain frontline hourly employees and their managers for more than thirty years. “You need to prepare your employees to handle a wide variety of uncomfortable problems, from the inappropriate magazine or photo left in plain sight to the most egregious client behavior encountered by Parish’s employees.”
He adds, “Cleaning technicians are going into clients’ homes. They’re bound to stumble on intimate items. The question is: where does a company draw the line? I think the cleaning technician needs to be part of that decision-making process. If a cleaning technician feels truly uncomfortable in a particular client’s home because of that client’s behavior or items found in that client’s home, then that employee should have an outlet for communicating those concerns. I’m not a lawyer, but it will be interesting to hear what a legal expert has to say about Parish’s problem. My understanding is that sexual harassment laws have to do with how an employee feels in any given situation. With this in mind, company owners should have a process in place for employees to report “inappropriate” client behavior. If an employee feels truly embarrassed or uneasy about the working environment at that client’s home, then that process should enable them to request reassignment.”
Elizabeth J.V. Speidel, Attorney at Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, P.A.
This employer handled the situation well. She told her employees to leave these homes immediately, which was exactly the right thing to do. Sexual harassment laws apply not only to employers, but to third parties, such as service providers and independent contractors. If an employer allows its employees to be harassed by a third party, that employer may expose itself to substantial liability and litigation.
Employers with fifteen (15) or more employees are required to comply with Title VII and to adopt non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. For examples of such policies, I highly recommend that employers visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website to read the exact legal definition of sexual harassment. Generally speaking, sexual harassment is behavior by a co-worker, supervisor, or even an outside contractor that is pervasive, ongoing and unwelcome. Further, employees who experience such unwelcome conduct have an obligation to report the behavior to their employers.
There’s no doubt that cleaning technicians are going to see private things in client’s homes. Sexual harassment laws are not designed to protect the faint of heart. Just because an employee is easily offended, doesn’t mean that he or she has a legitimate legal complaint. However, employers need to make sure they have a reporting process in place for their employees.
For example, let’s talk about how to handle the client watching porn. Yes, that’s really tacky, but unless he has asked the cleaning technicians to watch with him, I don’t know that this would meet the legal definition of sexual harassment. Anytime an employee encounters an incident like this and feels uncomfortable, though, he or she should have a way to report this behavior to his or her supervisor. The supervisor then has a record of the incident and can decide how to handle it in the moment or in the future if the behavior is repeated.
If an employee does make a complaint of sexual harassment, the employer has an obligation to conduct a prompt, thorough investigation into the complaint. No matter the result of the investigation, the employer should then follow up with that employee and tell him or her how it is going to deal with the situation. And, of course, an employee cannot be disciplined or terminated for filing a sexual harassment complaint.
Further, if a cleaning technician witnesses illegal activity or items such as pornographic pictures of children, drugs or physical abuse, he or she has a legal obligation to report this to a supervisor.
I also strongly suggest employers include language about sexual harassment and termination clauses in their contracts with clients. The EEOC has some sample language that employers can use in writing their contracts and terms of service.
Marilyn Suttle, Customer Service Trainer, and bestselling author of “Who’s Your Gladys?”
It can be alarming for cleaning staff members to run across sexually explicit materials or behaviors. From a customer service perspective, there are specific things you can do to maximize positive outcomes when handling challenges like the ones Julie faced. Keep these things in mind:
- Document the process you want employees to take in your employee handbook. Sharon McRill, owner of the Betty Brigade, a company that cleans and organizes homes, has a written an outline of specific actions for her staff to take when feeling uncomfortable, including calling a supervisor, and quietly leaving the home.
- Organize periodic sensitivity conversations. Employees can learn from you and each other so they develop discernment between over-reacting when finding a “toy” on a bedside table, or under-reacting to disturbing materials or illicit behaviors.
- Calm down before phoning the customer. Otherwise your odds of escalating the problem go up. Replace “judgment” words like disgusting or filthy, with a description of the situation. Sharon McRill had to phone a regular customer who decided to wear a robe, minus underwear as her staff worked on his home. They phoned Sharon and were told to leave the home. Once she gained her composure, Sharon phoned the man. She could have said, “That’s creepy and I won’t subject my staff to that.” Instead she said, “It’s not acceptable for my staff to be in your home when you’re only wearing a robe. Our clients need to wear pants.” By remaining respectful but firm, she was able to get her point across and salvage the client relationship.
- Clients who repeatedly act inappropriately toward you or your staff members, or who refuse to follow the necessary processes that allow you to do a good job for them, may need to be removed from your client list. Don’t let a customer’s disturbing behavior or lack of integrity adversely affect your business. Politely encourage such customers to move on to your competitors. An explanation as simple as, “Our business relationship is not a good fit for either of us” can keep the customer relationship respectful, even when it’s ending.
The information contained in our Case Study article has been supplied by the participants whose names are mentioned. The editors at Cleaning Business Today have collected and reported the statements of the participants, but have not attempted to verify the accuracy of the information supplied. Accordingly, Cleaning Business Today does not make any representation, warranty or undertaking expressed or implied with respect to the information contained in this article and no responsibility is accepted by Cleaning Business Today as to the accuracy or completeness of that information.