sexual harassment in dictionary

In Focus: Third-Party Sexual Harassment

By Douglas Lipsky

While employers in New York can be held liable for harassment by supervisors and coworkers, employers may also be responsible when employees experience harassment by third parties, such as vendors, customers, and clients. Give the challenges of proving a third-party sexual harassment claim, the best way for workers to protect their rights is to consult with an experienced employment lawyer. 

What is third-party sexual harassment?

Under state and federal law, sexual harassment is considered an unlawful form of sex-based discrimination. In particular, harassment involves unwelcome conduct or comments that are so pervasive that they create a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment may also arise when an adverse employment action is threatened or taken against an employee who refuses to comply with a supervisor’s sexual advances or demands.

Unlawful sexual harassment is not limited to offensive behavior by a coworker, manager, or supervisor, however. Third-party harassment arises when a non-employee —  customer, client,  vendor, independent contractor — harasses an employee. Examples of third-party sexual harassment include: 

  • An employee for a service provider being harassed by a client
  • A restaurant server being groped by a patron
  • A receptionist repeatedly being asked on a date by a delivery person after saying no several times

In any event, third-party sexual harassment is a violation of local, state, and federal laws for which employers must be held accountable. 

Holding Employers Liable for Third-Party Sexual Harassment

In short, an employer that knows or reasonably should have known about third-party harassment and fails to stop it can be held liable. At the same time, employers often do not have much control over third parties, which can make it difficult to prove that an employer knew or should have known about the harassment.

Third-party harassment often occurs offsite or when there is no one nearby to witness it. By immediately reporting third-party harassment to a supervisor or human resources, however, there can be no question as to whether or not the employer knew about offensive conduct. 

Although corrective action to stop the harassment varies depending on the situation and the specifics of the relationship between the employer and the third party, steps that an employer might be reasonably expected to take include: 

  • Investigate the employee’s complaint
  • Speak with the customer, client or, vendor about the harassment and tell them to stop 
  • Place another employee in the position that deals with the third party
  • Terminate the relationship with the third party

It is important to remember that employers cannot retaliate against employees who complain about workplace harassment. This means that an employee cannot be fired, demoted, or disciplined for complaining about third-party harassment.

Why This Matters

While employees may be reluctant to complain about third-party harassment, employers have an obligation to provide employees with a work environment free from harassment. If you have experienced sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment or resulted in an adverse employment action, you have a right to file a lawsuit to recover damages, including 

  • Back pay
  • Front pay
  • Lost employee benefits
  • Pain and suffering 
  • Emotional distress

Taking legal action against an employer is never easy, but it may be the only way to stop third-party sexual harassment. If you have been harassed by a supervisor, coworker, or third party, talk to an employment 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.