HR Management & Compliance

When Customers Harass Workers, Employers Must Take Action

Employers must take steps to end harassment of employees, whether that harassment comes from managers, coworkers, or even customers.

Sexual Harassment

A recent jury verdict out of Illinois illustrates this duty. In a suit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a jury awarded a Costco employee $250,000 because the employer failed to take reasonable steps to prevent a customer from sexually harassing her.

“No employer gets a pass because it is a customer targeting its employee, rather than a manager or fellow employee,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s Regional Attorney in Chicago, in a statement about the case.

The Costco Case

A Costco employee filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging that the employer had violated federal law by failing to appropriately address a customer’s harassment.

The agency conducted an investigation and sued on the employee’s behalf, alleging that she had repeatedly told her managers that a customer was stalking her. According to the commission, the actions included ominous staring, unwanted physical touching, unwanted requests for dates, and overly intrusive personal questions. Eventually, the employee contacted the police and obtained a protective order against the customer.

According to the complaint, Costco failed to respond adequately, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination. Costco asked the court to dismiss the claims but a judge determined that a jury should hear the case. The jury ruled in the employee’s favor, awarding her $250,000.

The EEOC said the verdict should send a clear message to employers that they have a duty to protect employees from customer harassment. “An employer should not wait until an employee is so fearful that she resorts to seeking a restraining order before intervening against a customer,” said Laura Feldman, an EEOC Trial Attorney, in a statement. “Employers should work diligently to ensure that all of its employees have a safe, harassment-free workplace.”

Employer Takeaway

The Costco case illustrates not only an employer’s responsibility to take steps to stop harassment but also the need to follow up with a complaining employee, according to Jo Ellen Whitney, a Senior Shareholder at Davis Brown and an editor of the Iowa Employment Law Letter.

The facts alleged in this lawsuit were highly disputed. The employer took steps to end the harassment and says it told the employee to report any further problems, which she didn’t; the employee, on the other hand, says she did report additional harassment but that Costco took no further action.

What could have prevented this? Follow-up, says Whitney. “As a manager you can’t simply place the burden on the employee to tell you if things are or are not going ok. You have to be aware of the environment as a whole and one way to do that would be to actively follow up with the employee several times to make sure she had no additional issues,” she told BLR®. “If management had done that and documented those conversations it would have had the effect of showing ongoing concern,” she added.

Good follow-up also lets employees know that they should inform the employer of any problems in the future, Whitney noted. “Employees can become demoralized when problems don’t stop right away and may choose not to report again because ‘nothing was fixed last time,’” she said. “By following up you get out of that trap and have the opportunity to get ahead of issues before they occur.”

Kate TornoneKate McGovern Tornone is an editor at BLR. She has almost 10 years’ experience covering a variety of employment law topics and currently writes for HR Daily Advisor and Before coming to BLR, she served as editor of Thompson Information Services’ ADA and FLSA publications, co-authored the Guide to the ADA Amendments Act, and published several special reports. She graduated from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. in media studies.