We’ve all heard of instances of sexual harassment caused by co-workers or supervisors. But what happens when a customer is the cause of your workplace sexual harassment? Do you have a claim against your employer (or the customer)? Generally speaking, your employer can be held liable for sexual harassment caused by customers. But there are specific elements you must prove.
Sexual Harassment by Customers is Illegal in Illinois
Under Illinois law, a victim of sexual harassment by a customer must first prove that the sexual conduct was unwelcome and that it was severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. In addition, the victim must also show that the employer knew (or should have known) about the harassment and didn’t take appropriate action to stop it. Let’s unpack that last part.
You must notify your employer of sexual harassment by a customer. Your employer should at least have an opportunity to address the sexual harassment by a customer. They can do this by fully investigating your complaint or telling the customer to stop the harassment. It would be very difficult to hold your employer liable for sexual harassment by a customer if they didn’t even know about it in the first place. In other words, they have to have a chance to fix the problem.
Employers are responsible for handling sexual harassment by customers complaints
Your employer has a responsibility to maintain a safe work environment for you, including protecting you from sexual harassment by customers. This includes having a clear and effective sexual harassment policy in place and taking prompt action when an employee reports harassment.
However, victims of sexual harassment by customers may face challenges in pursuing their case. These may include a fear of retaliation, lack of evidence (or at least lack of documentary evidence), and an unfortunate stigma that victims often go through by stepping up and confronting the harassment. To be clear, retaliation against someone who report sexual harassment by a customer is illegal. If your employer retaliates against you for reporting harassment, they might be liable for two human rights violations: one for the actual harassment, and another for retaliating.
There are some common defenses employers use when accused of sexual harassment by customers. These include arguing that the conduct was not severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, that the employer did not know about the harassment, or that the employer actually did take appropriate action to stop the harassment.
So what should you do when facing sexual harassment by a customer? Notify your employer and give them an opportunity to take action. If that doesn’t work, then contact the civil rights attorneys at JLC and we’ll do an independent investigation.