Dealing with sexual harassment by customers is not part of your job

Your employer may be vigilant about conducting training on sexual harassment in the workplace, and they may indeed have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment by colleagues and supervisors. But what about harassment by customers and clients?

Employers also owe their employees a workplace where they aren’t made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by the people they’re serving. However, too many employers don’t provide any guidance on what to do if a customer is harassing one of their staff. In worst-case scenarios, they may even turn a blind eye to it or encourage it if the customer is bringing a lot of money to the business.

What employees are most vulnerable?

People who interact closely with customers are especially vulnerable. This includes bank employees, restaurant workers and retail employees. Employees who rely on tips or commissions need to be friendly to the people they’re serving. Too often, those customers misinterpret that friendliness or choose to take advantage of it. When alcohol is involved, as in bars and restaurants, workplaces can become genuinely unsafe for those who work there.

The legal director of The National Women’s Law Center points out that the legal standard for sexual harassment (and any type of harassment) is no different for customers than it is for employees. Regardless of who the harasser is, it’s the employer’s responsibility to deal with it.

What options does an employer have when a customer is harassing an employee?

The legal director notes that employers aren’t as powerless as they may feel over people who don’t work for them. She suggests options like changing people’s shifts or adjusting floor assignments. If the customer just turns their attention to another employee, business owners can address the issue directly with the harasser and potentially tell them they’re not welcome. The same is true with vendors, independent contractors and others who may be harassing employees.

If you’re being harassed by a customer, you can and should inform your employer. If they don’t take steps to help you, find out what other options you have. Remember that you have a right to a workplace that’s free of harassment.

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