Recently I gave a seminar to a group of managers employed by one of my corporate clients and informed them that the company can be held liable for harassment by non-employees.
Several managers expressed doubt about this. How can a company be held responsible for what a customer does, they asked?
But it’s true –an employer is legally responsible for preventing and remedying harassment toward its employees if the harassment is based on a protected category, e.g. sex, disability, race, age, etc.
The fact that the harasser is not an employee does not relieve the employer of this responsibility when the harassment occurs in the workplace.
Just ask Costco. A few days ago the giant retailer was hit with a jury verdict of $250,000 based on the sexual harassment of one of its part-time employees by a customer. The customer reportedly asked the employee on dates, hugged and touched her without consent, filmed her at the store, and continued harassing her after she reported the incidents to managers. The employee sought a restraining order against the customer and then set her sights on Costco.
At trial, Costo argued that it did what it was legally required to do to prevent and correct the problem; the retailer advised the customer to shop at a different location. But this occurred only after the employee went on leave due to emotional distress. In other words, the damage had been done by the time the employer took action, so the jury held Costco responsible for the customer’s behavior.
So, yes, as an employer, you can be held responsible for how your customers behave toward your employees.
The customer is not always right.