Seventh Circuit Confirms Customers Can Be Workplace Harassers
By: Ann Potratz
A unanimous decision from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s verdict that an employer can be held liable for customers who create a hostile work environment.
According to the complaint, a wholesale retail employee claimed she was stalked by a customer and that her employer did nothing to help her. The customer asked her on dates repeatedly, watched her as she worked, and questioned her about interactions with other men.
On several occasions, the employee reported the situation to management. While one supervisor chastised the employee after she reported the customer to police by telling her she should be friendly, another supervisor intervened and asked the customer to stay away from the employee.
Needless to say, the customer did not heed the “stay away” warning and continued to approach her over the course of 13 months, even making recordings of her with his phone. When the case went to court, the retailer claimed that though the customer’s behavior was disturbing, it did not rise to the level of harassment because it was not “overtly sexual.”
Both the lower court and the 7th Circuit disagreed, stating that his behavior was “intimidating or frightening,” and could cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress and fear for her safety. As a result, both courts agreed that the retailer had allowed the behavior to continue long enough to establish a hostile working environment.
The 7th Circuit includes the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The case was EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, decided September 10, 2018.