IS IT ILLEGAL FOR CUSTOMERS TO SEXUALLY HARASS EMPLOYEES?
- posted: Mar. 03, 2015
- Zafer Akin, Esq.
A common misconception is that employment law only protects employees from sexual harassment when the harasser is somebody who works in the same company. However, the law also protects employees from sexual harassment when the perpetrator is a customer.
A case last year indicates how the law deals with sexual harassment on the job when the culprit is a customer. Female employees at a national grocery chain were sexually harassed by a customer for several years. The man visited the store regularly, and would make inappropriate sexual comments to both the employees and other customers. He groped employees, cornered them, and even pulled one of them onto his lap.
Though the employees made a number of complaints to store management, their concerns were dismissed. The management told employees that security could not force the customer to leave the store unless they personally witnessed his offensive conduct. This decision led some of the female employees to suffer sexual harassment on a regular basis for years.
Several of the employees notified the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of the harassment. The EEOC filed a lawsuit on their behalf, and was able to settle the case with the grocery chain for $487,500. In addition to paying the settlement, the chain will have to establish new sexual harassment policies, train its staff, and report future complaints of harassment to the EEOC.
Once an employee reports harassment, the employer must act
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that once an employee reports sexual harassment, the employer must investigate and put an end to it. If the company does not do so, it will be held financially liable if an agency or courtroom finds that harassment did occur. Please note that an employer is only held liable for a customer’s harassing behavior if it is aware about the sexual harassment. An employer is considered aware of the situation when the employee reports an incident to a supervisor or human resources department. As EEOC San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado said, "Employers are responsible for ensuring a harassment-free workplace for their employees, regardless if the harasser is a co-worker, manager or customer. There should be no tolerance for repeat offenders and serial harassers."
What to do if a customer has sexually harassed you
The first thing that you should do if a customer sexually harasses you is report the situation to your employer. Once you have done so, the employer is required to conduct a prompt and fair investigation of the situation. If the investigation finds that sexual harassment occurred, the employer has the responsibility to put an end to it.
There are a number of ways for the employer to stop a customer’s sexual harassment. The most obvious is banning the customer from the store. In some cases, however, it may not be financially advantageous or even possible for the employer to do so. If the employer cannot terminate its relationship with the customer, it may re-assign the customer to a different employee or request to communicate with a different individual from the customer’s company in the future.
You may be afraid to report harassment to your employee for fear of reprisal or humiliation. However, you should know that city, state, and federal laws protect individuals who report incidents of harassment from retaliation.
When to file a lawsuit
If your employer fails to react appropriately to your complaints or retaliates against you for reporting the harassment, you should consider filing a lawsuit. If you file a lawsuit, you may be able to recover monetary damages for your emotional suffering, front pay, back pay, expert witness fees, and lawyer’s fees. Your employer may also be required to create a new sexual harassment policy or pay punitive damages.
The lawyers at Akin Law Group have a track record of success with sexual harassment cases, and can maximize your chances of success. Contact us at 866.685.5163 to schedule a free consultation