There is a general principle that people have at least an ethical duty to prevent harm to others if possible. This general principle applies to sexual harassment law. Typically, employers are responsible for all conduct that occurs in the workplace, whether or not one of their employees was directly responsible.
This issue is especially a problem for service industry workers, mostly for economic reasons. Since these individuals depend almost exclusively on tips, they often feel pressure to be friendly with customers. If a customer oversteps a boundary, many employers refuse to intervene because they believe the customer is always right.
In a nutshell, if a restaurant owner or manager knew about severe harassment and had a chance to prevent it, the aggrieved worker has a solid claim for damages. That case is often enough to successfully resolve such claims with an out-of-court settlement.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made some rules in this area. Unfortunately, they are rather generic, though they do clearly establish the general principle mentioned above.
According to Tile 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, an employer is responsible for acts of sexual harassment in the workplace when the employer knows or should have known of the conduct.
Sexual Harassment and the Service Industry
Lockard v. Pizza Hut is now more than 20 years old. However, it is still the definitive word in this area.
This 1998 case originated in the tiny Oklahoma town of Atoka, which is not far north of the Oklahoma-Texas border. Rena Lockard was a waitress at the town’s Pizza Hut. The restaurant had a rather large dining room, at least by Atoka standards.
One night, a pair of male customers with a history of disruptive behavior visited the restaurant. The wait staff argued over who must serve them, and the lot apparently fell to Lockard. At the table, one customer asked Lockard what perfume she was wearing because, he said, she “smelled good.” When Lockard refused to answer, the customer violently yanked her hair. She immediately reported the incident to her manager, but he refused to intervene. According to the record, he simply responded “You wait on them. You were hired to be a waitress. You waitress.”
Incidentally, Lockard’s manager often loudly played a song called Freak Me during closing. Earlier, Lockard had objected to the song’s demeaning and suggestive lyrics, but her manager kept playing it anyway.
Back to our story. When she returned to the table, one of the customers groped Lockard. At that point, she had had enough, and she quit on the spot.
The court later ruled that the restaurant was liable for the customers’ sexual harassment. The manager knew about the severe harassment, could have done something about it, and did nothing.
So, if you are the victim of third-party harassment, report it to your manager. There is no need to go into detail, but the manager must know the conduct was severe. At that point, the manager or supervisor must make an accommodation.
Contact a Dedicated Lawyer
If a customer harassed you at work, you may have legal options. For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago workplace discrimination lawyer, contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline. Home and after-hours visits are available.