What Are Employer Obligations When the Alleged Harasser Is a Customer?

The laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protect your employees from discrimination by anyone in your workplace and harassment is a form of employment discrimination. As an employer, it is your responsibility to maintain a harassment-free workplace – whether the harasser is a manager, a manager in another area, a co-worker, vendor, client, or customer.

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If you need to defend against an EEOC complaint, contact Hendershot Cowart P.C. today.

What Constitutes Harassment?

It is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, transgender status, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.

According to the EEOC, examples of harassment include:

  • Derogatory jokes
  • Slurs
  • Pressure for dates or sexual favors
  • Epithets or name-calling
  • Insults
  • Physical assaults
  • Threats or intimidation
  • Ridicule or mockery
  • Offensive cartoons, graffiti, or pictures
  • Interference with work performance

Employees may pursue a claim against their employer if evidence of harassment, such as these examples, exists.

EEOC Guidance Regarding Harassment From Customers in the Workplace

In environments where employees interact with clients, customers, contractors, or vendors, harassment can come from outside of your workforce. Waitstaff, hospitality workers, and healthcare providers may encounter harassment from customers or patients.

The laws enforced by the EEOC protect employees from being harassed by anyone in the workplace – including clients, customers, and patients. You are legally obligated to act if a non-employee violates discrimination laws at your place of business.

What to Expect if an Employee Files an EEOC Complaint for Customer Harassment

Before filing a claim with the EEOC for third-party harassment, an employee should first report the incident to you. If the employee is not satisfied with your response, the employee has grounds to file a claim against their employer with the EEOC.

Once a claim is filed, the EEOC will notify you of the complaint within 10 days. That notice will include instructions on how to respond. You may be asked to present your side of the story in a position statement, provide personnel files, agree to an on-site visit, or share the contact details of any eyewitnesses.

At this point, you should speak to a labor and employment attorney with experience representing employers in EEOC investigations. An attorney can help you navigate the EEOC process, respond to requests on time, and avoid costly mistakes.

If the agency determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that harassment did occur, both parties may agree to mediation. If mediation does not take place or is not successful, the EEOC will conduct its investigation.

Reducing Liability for Employee Harassment by Customers or Clients

If the EEOC investigates a discrimination charge and decides to file a lawsuit or if the complainant is dissatisfied with the results of the EEOC investigation, the discrimination claim may end up in federal court. There are no official federal guidelines regarding employer liability for third-party harassment at the workplace. However, the consensus within the court system is that an employer may be held liable for harassment if they knowingly allow the harassment to occur without acting.

Reasonable Measures

To lessen the chance of an EEOC claim and subsequent legal action, take reasonable measures to protect employees from third-party harassment at work. Investigate the incident or incidents and document your findings. Then take action to deter further discrimination or harassment.

Depending on the situation, reasonable measures to deter and stop harassment may include:

  • Ask customers to stop the offensive behavior or leave your place of business
  • Implement safety measures such as physical barriers or panic buttons
  • Allow the employee to avoid interactions with the harasser
  • Ask the harasser’s manager or human resources department to intervene
  • Terminate the client relationship
  • Depending on the severity of the harassment, you may even have to involve security or law enforcement.

In many cases, employees may feel pressure to let the harassment happen for fear of losing a sale, tips, or commissions. Be wary of a “customer is always right” attitude and make it clear that you will not tolerate inappropriate or harassing behavior at your workplace.

If you know an employee is being harassed by a client or customer and you don’t take reasonable actions to protect your employee, you can be held liable for creating a hostile work environment.

Trustworthy Counsel

If you are an employer facing an EEOC complaint for third-party harassment, our legal team can help. Our experienced attorneys represent employers in many types of administrative claims including EEOC or TWC complaints, FLSA claims, retaliation lawsuits, and more. We prioritize each case to ensure that our clients get the personalized care and attention they deserve. We work hard to foster positive client relationships from the first consultation to the final resolution.

When you need a legal strategy backed by experience and results, choose Hendershot Cowart P.C.

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