- An Illinois gas station and convenience store operator has agreed to pay $75,000 to settle claims it failed to protect an employee from customer harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said July 13.
- The Kelley Williamson Company employee was subjected to months of sexual advances and crude jokes by a customer, the agency said. She and others reported the customer’s conduct, but the employer failed to act promptly to stop the harassment, EEOC alleged in an earlier lawsuit.
- “Employers must take reports of sexual harassment seriously and act promptly to stop harassment when it occurs,” said EEOC Chicago District Director Julie Bowman in a statement announcing the settlement.
Federal law protects employees from sexual harassment at work, meaning employers are required to take steps to stop any such harassment and prevent it from recurring, according to EEOC, the agency tasked with enforcing those provisions.
The law — Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — doesn’t prohibit simple teasing or isolated incidents, according to the agency’s website, but rather harassment that “is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
As the most recent example illustrated, an employer can be held liable for harassment from those who don’t work for the company, such as a client, vendor or customer.
Similarly, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 upheld a jury verdict against Costco addressing an alleged failure to stop a customer’s harassment. In that case, a customer allegedly stalked, videotaped and touched an employee and asked her personal questions. In its defense, the employer argued that the harassment didn’t meet the law’s standards. But the appeals court concluded that harassment need not be “overtly sexual” to constitute actionable discrimination.
Management-side attorneys have long urged HR professionals not to let such situations fester. When an employee alleges harassment, the department should look into the claims and take any necessary action, sources previously told HR Dive.