Sometimes The Customer Is Wrong

When people think about workplace sexual harassment, they often imagine an employer demanding a quid pro quo or pervasive sexual harassment by a supervisor or coworker. I have written about the legal definition of sexual harassment but one additional issue employees should be aware of is so-called third-party sexual harassment. Employers are legally obligated to provide their employees with a workplace free from sexual harassment. Whether the perpetrator of harassment is an employee or a third-party like a customer, client, or vendor is generally irrelevant.

Once an employer becomes aware that a third party is harassing an employee, the employer becomes obligated to investigate and ensure that the harassment stops. Third-party sexual harassment is an especially difficult practice for an employee to get her employer to eliminate. Unlike their relationship with most employees, employers are often dependent upon these third-parties. They are hesitant to take action which could cause a customer or client to stop using their services or buying their products. This fear often causes employers to allow the sexual harassment to continue.

Moreover, employees who regularly deal with third-parties including customers and clients are often well aware of the importance of the third-party to the employer. Many of them face retaliation by their employer if they raise the third-party’s conduct. Even when they are not faced with retaliation, employees believe, often rightly unfortunately, that their employer will be unwilling to take action to protect them. They also fear that their relationship with the third-party will become awkward and strained, with the employee left to face the consequences of that issue. As such, it is common for employees to under-report third-party sexual harassment, even more so than sexual harassment by a supervisor or coworker.

Third-party sexual harassment is especially common with tipped workers. In a recent article entitled “The Tipping Equation,” the New York Times reported about the epidemic of third-party sexual harassment. The Times article discussed the prevalence of customers’ sexual harassment of tipped employees. Because these employees are dependent upon customers for the bulk of their wages, employees are faced with a difficult choice. Report the sexual harassment and lose significant wages for that shift or allow it to take place and continue being a victim.

Employees who are the victims of sexual harassment, including third-party sexual harassment, should contact Enright Law to obtain a free consultation to discuss their options. If you are being sexually harassed or have been retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment, you have legal rights including the right to file a complaint with a state or federal agency to ensure the harassment stops and that you are compensated for the damage you have suffered. Enright Law represents victims of sexual harassment and retaliation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and can help you enforce your employee rights.