Female employee upset

Harassment By Customers and Clients: What Employees Need To Know

By Douglas Lipsky

Suppose you are meeting with a client who makes a sexual advance, or you work for a retail store, and a customer makes a lewd remark. This is referred to as third-party harassment. 

Given the challenges of proving harassment by a customer or client, having an experienced sexual harassment lawyer is essential. Let’s take a look at third-party sexual harassment and what you can do about it.

Understanding Third-Party Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, defined as unlawful sex-based discrimination under state and federal law, typically involves undesirable behavior or remarks so prevalent that they create an abusive, threatening, or hostile work environment. Sexual harassment can also occur when an employee is threatened with or faces adverse employment actions (dismissal, discipline) for rejecting sexual advances or requests from a supervisor. 

However, sexual harassment isn’t exclusively an internal issue, limited to coworkers or superiors. Third-party harassment occurs when a customer or client harasses an employee. This may involve:

  • A salesperson being sexually harassed by a client
  • A restaurant server being inappropriately touched by a patron
  • A grocery store cashier being leered at by a customer

No matter how it occurs, employers can be held responsible when employees experience harassment by customers and clients. 

Can Employers Be Liable for Sexual Harassment By Customers and Clients?

An employer who is aware of or should reasonably be aware of third-party harassment and fails to intervene can be held liable. However, employers frequently have limited control over customers and clients, which can make proving employer knowledge of harassment challenging.

Third-party harassment often happens when no witnesses are present, especially if it occurs off-site. However, reporting third-party harassment to a supervisor or human resources immediately will eliminate doubt regarding the employer’s knowledge of the offensive behavior or lack thereof.

Appropriate responses to harassment differ according to the situation and the specifics of the employer-third party relationship. Some reasonable actions an employer could take include:

  • Investigating the employee’s claim
  • Discussing the harassment with the customer or client and asking them to stop
  • Assigning a different employee to interact with the third party
  • Severing ties with the client or customer

Importantly, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who voice complaints about workplace harassment. In other words, employees who report third-party harassment cannot be terminated, demoted, or penalized.

Key Takeaways

While employees might be reluctant to report third-party harassment, employers are legally obligated to maintain a work environment free of harassment. If you’ve experienced a hostile work environment or adverse employment action, you have the right to bring a lawsuit to recover damages, which might include:

  • Back pay
  • Front pay
  • Loss of employee benefits
  • Compensation for pain and suffering and emotional distress

Taking legal action against an employer is never easy, but it’s the best way to protect yourself from third-party sexual harassment and may help to prevent others from being harassed. If you’ve experienced harassment from a customer or client, talk to an experienced 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.