Can employers be held liable when customers sexually harass workers? Yes, under certain circumstances. Companies have a legal responsibility to protect their workers from a sexually hostile work environment, even when the source of the harassment is a customer.
The issue just arose in a California case in which a female housekeeper alleged that the Marriott hotel she worked for failed to keep her safe from male guests' sexual harassment and misconduct. Although the particular case is being brought under California law, federal anti-discrimination laws also require employers to protect their workers from customer harassment.
In this case, the housekeeper claims that a drunken guest groped her and offered her $50 when she was cleaning a lobby bathroom. When she complained to a supervisor, the response was a joke that he should have offered $100. Hotel management, she says, didn't even investigate the incident.
Unfortunately, the incident wasn't isolated. The housekeeper told Bloomberg news that men routinely barge into restrooms while she is cleaning them, often urinating in front of her and making inappropriate comments or unwanted advances. Other housekeepers contacted by Bloomberg backed up her complaint that guest harassment is rampant.
The hotel once provided housekeepers with two devices meant to protect them. The first was a large sign that blocked guests from entering while the bathroom was being serviced. The second was a panic buzzer -- although it seems the buzzers weren't hooked up to anything.
But management took away the blocker signs, deciding they were "old-fashioned." After the bathroom incident and multiple requests by the housekeeper, the hotel replaced them with an 8-1/2 x 11 sign that does nothing to keep guests out. The panic buzzers were taken away in 2012.
According to the housekeeper, hotel management's "failure to provide adequate protection" against guest harassment resulted in a "consistent pattern of conduct which occurred on a regular and frequent basis."
Although Marriott says it has "a global policy that strictly prohibits harassment of any associate by any other associate, manager, supervisor, vendor, guest, client or customer, it was the target of a nearly two-month strike this winter. The demands were higher wages and stronger harassment protections. The hotel in this case was not involved in the strike.
What are employers required to do to stop customer harassment?
Employers are legally required to take reasonable steps to deter customer harassment. That means listening to the employee, investigating the incident and making a workable plan aimed at prevention. If that plan is not effective, a new plan must be devised.
If you have suffered severe or repeated harassment at the hands of customers, contact an experienced employment law attorney for an evaluation of your case and rights.