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Are Employers Responsible for Third-Party Sexual Harassment?

By Douglas Lipsky

Sexual harassment in New York workplaces is usually thought of in the context of a supervisor making unwanted sexual advances or a coworker making offensive comments; however, harassment can also be committed by third parties — clients, customers, vendors, contractors. 

Regardless of whether harassment is committed by employees or third parties, employers can be held liable for failing to prevent or stop it. If you have been subjected to third-party sexual harassment, talk to an employment lawyer about your legal options. 

What is third-party sexual harassment? 

To understand third-party sexual harassment, it is important to define harassment. Under federal and state law, sexual harassment is an unlawful form of sex-based discrimination. Generally, there are two types of harassment: quid pro quo harassment, and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a supervisor or manager makes sexual advances or demands in exchange for a job benefit. A hostile work environment can arise when anyone in the workplace engages in unwelcome conduct that creates an offensive, intimidating, or hostile environment. While women are more likely to be targeted, sexual harassment in the workplace can impact anyone, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

Third-party sexual harassment occurs when it is committed by an individual who is not a company employee, such as a client, customer, vendor, delivery person, or anyone who comes to the workplace or interacts with employees.

For example, a client who makes sexual advances in exchange for closing a business deal may have committed quid pro quo harassment. On the other hand, a delivery person who repeatedly asks a receptionist on a date or makes comments about his or her appearance can create a hostile work environment.

How can employers prevent third-party sexual harassment?

Although employers have less control over third parties than employees, an employer can be held liable if the employer knew, or reasonably should have known about the harassment and failed to stop it. 

While the appropriate corrective action depends on the situation, an employer may need to:

  • Reassign the victim so that he or she no longer deals with a certain client
  • Relocate the employee’s workstation so that he or she does not receive deliveries
  • Tell the client, customer, or delivery person to stop harassing the employee
  • Terminate the business relationship with the client
  • Expel the customer from the premises

In any event, an employer that fails to prevent or stop third-party sexual harassment may be held liable, and victims may be able to recover compensation, including:

  • Compensatory damages (back pay, front pay)
  • Pain and suffering 
  • Emotional distress
  • Medical costs of mental health treatment (e.g. therapy)
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorneys’ fees and court costs

The Bottom Line

Whether you have been subjected to harassment by a supervisor, coworker, or a third party, you have a right to a harassment-free workplace. The best way to protect your rights is to consult with an experienced New York sexual harassment lawyer.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.