Companies cannot turn a blind eye to third-party sexual harassment.

A Chicago jury recently awarded a woman $250,000 in emotional distress damages after her employer failed to protect her from third-party sexual harassment.  In this case the third-party was a customer.

In EEOC v. Costco, the EEOC filed suit on behalf of the Plaintiff after Costco failed to take steps to protect her from a customer who was harassing her, had inappropriately touched her and was stalking her.  It apparently took Costco more than a year to even ban the customer from the store, which meant that he was free to come in and harass and intimidate the employee whenever he wanted.

Because of Costco’s inaction, the employee was left with no choice but to go to the police and obtain an order of protection against the customer on her own.  The EEOC, on behalf of the employee, argued that Costco’s failure to stop this third-party sexual harassment created a hostile working environment for the Plaintiff.  The Judge, in allowing the case to proceed to trial, correctly recognized that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits a hostile working environment regardless of who causes it.  In this case it was a customer doing the harassing but in other cases we have seen it has been vendors or even friends of co-workers.

This case reminds us that employers have obligations to their employees aside from those that arise between co-workers and/or supervisors and employees. As John Hendrickson, one of the EEOC attorneys handling the case said, “No employer gets a pass because it is a customer targeting its employee, rather than a manager or fellow employee,” Hendrickson said. “If the employer permits the harassment to continue, it’s compounding its liability and troubles.”