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How to Handle Sexual Harassment from a Customer

October 19th, 2020

Typically, employees are aware that sexual harassment from co-workers or supervisors is illegal. However, what about sexual harassment from customers? This too is illegal behavior, and employers must take steps to address this behavior. In addition to filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a Pennsylvania employee has several options when it comes to handling sexual harassment from a customer.

Should I Address the Issue with the Customer?

One way to handle this uncomfortable situation is to address the issue with the customer. Employees who face sexual harassment from customers or clients may choose to let them know directly or indirectly that their behavior is inappropriate. Whether an employee chooses to do this depends on situational factors, such as the setting and the level of comfort between the parties.

How Do I Limit Interactions with the Customer?

This approach involves consciously avoiding one-on-one situations with the customer. Instead of talking to the customer directly, an employee may take steps to avoid being alone with the client or to avoid interaction with the client altogether. For example, an employee may enlist the help of a colleague who will be present for all meetings and calls with the client. If possible, the employee may appoint someone else as the principal contact for that particular client.

When Should I Report the Sexual Harassment to My Employer?

Employers have a duty to protect their employees from sexual harassment, including from bosses, co-workers, or even third parties. It is important that employees keep records of all sexual harassment incidents as evidence for a potential future case.

If an employee continues to be sexually harassed by a customer, despite attempts to stop the inappropriate behavior, the employee has the option of reporting it to their employer. The EEOC encourages employees to report sexual harassment to management as early as possible to prevent it from escalating.  

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is prohibited under both federal and state law. It generally includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other inappropriate verbal or physical behaviors that affects employment. Sexual harassment can interfere with the victim’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex and gender discrimination and harassment at the federal level, applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. At the state level, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), which also prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, applies to employers with four or more employees.

What constitutes sexual harassment largely depends on the circumstances of each case. However, harassment is generally considered unlawful when either the employee must endure the offensive conduct as a condition of continued employment, or the conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment. The EEOC notes that petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents do not typically rise to the level of being illegal. To be considered unlawful sexual harassment, it must create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

According to the EEOC, examples of offensive conduct include:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Slurs
  • Epithets or name calling
  • Insults
  • Physical assaults
  • Threats or intimidation
  • Ridicule or mockery
  • Offensive objects of pictures
  • Interference with work performance

What is Third-Party Sexual Harassment at Work?

An employer is automatically liable when a supervisor sexually harasses an employee and that harassment leads to a negative employment action, such as termination, demotion, or failure to promote. Employers have a duty to take reasonable steps to promptly correct and prevent inappropriate behavior from not only supervisors or co-workers, but also third parties.

For example, independent contractors, clients, and customers are all third parties. Employers may have procedures in place for how exactly to handle claims of sexual harassment at work. The type of action an employer should take depends on the situation, but can include the following:

  • Conducting an investigation into the sexual harassment claim.
  • Telling the customer to stop the inappropriate behavior.
  • Removing the client from that particular account.
  • Terminating the relationship with the customer or client.

The EEOC advises that prevention is the best way to eliminate workplace sexual harassment; to that end, anti-harassment training is an effective tool. Employers should also have an effective complaints process in place for employees and make it clear that they have a no-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment.

Steps to Take When Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment

Employees who are facing sexual harassment should first report the incident to their employer. In addition to verbally discussing the issue, employees should also file a written report with the Human Resources (HR) department. It is helpful to have evidence of the sexual harassment, such as dated accounts of face-to-face incidents, emails, text messages, or transcripts of phone calls.

If an employer does not take steps to stop the harassment, an employee may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to help with drafting a thorough complaint and ensuring compliance with all legal procedures and deadlines.

Employees should keep in mind that EEOC complaints must be filed within 300 days of the incident, whereas complaints with the PHRC must be filed within 180 days of the alleged sexual harassment.

What is Involved in the Sexual Harassment Claims Process?

The appropriate governing body will investigate claims of sexual harassment. The investigation typically takes the EEOC investigators up to 180 days. After this, the employee may request a hearing or a determination as to whether sexual discrimination took place. The PHRC complaints will be investigated by a Commission Investigator who may interview witnesses or subpoena relevant documents whenever it is necessary. There may also be a fact-finding conference.

Then, the parties may either agree to a voluntary settlement, the case may be dismissed, or conciliation efforts may commence. If the Commission finds that there is probable cause to support the harassment, the respondent will be asked to cease and desist from the act. If the case still has not settled, the Commission may hold a public hearing, and the employee may be represented by either a Commission or private attorney.

Employees who file sexual harassment complaints with either the EEOC or the PHRC are protected from retaliation in the workplace. By law, employers are prohibited from taking any adverse action against employees who file harassment complaints or witnesses who testify or assist in legal proceedings.

Available Remedies for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

When employment discrimination or sexual harassment is found, employers must put a stop to any discriminatory actions or practices and take steps to prevent them in the future. The types of relief available to victims of sexual harassment depends on the circumstances of each case. For example, if an employee was not promoted due to their gender, they may receive backpay and benefits. Employees may also be able to recover compensatory damages for their out-of-pocket expenses caused by the discrimination, such as those associated with job placement or medical treatment.

If an employee is facing sexual harassment or discrimination at work, they should speak to a skilled lawyer as soon as possible.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Advocate for Employees Who Were Sexually Harassed by Customers

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, our Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. can help you. Our knowledgeable and experienced attorneys will fight to get you the justice and compensation you deserve. Call us at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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