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Are employers liable when customers harass or abuse employees?

On Behalf of | Apr 26, 2022 | Workplace Harassment

Employees in multiple industries who deal directly with customers have had a particularly tough couple of years. Many people vent their anger, frustration and other feelings on whoever is telling them something they don’t want to hear. Often, that anger includes insults and name-calling referencing an employee’s (real or perceived) race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or another characteristic. In some cases, customers have become violent.

As an employee in the retail, transportation, restaurant or hospitality industry, you know that your managers and co-workers can’t harass and insult you like that, but they can’t control what customers do, can they?

In fact, employers have a responsibility to protect their employees from harassment and violence. That includes sexual harassment. 

What employers can and should do

While employers can’t always prevent customers from harassing or otherwise behaving badly toward their employees, they can make it clear that they won’t tolerate it. Private businesses can refuse service to those who are verbally or physically abusive. Employers need to let employees know that they can (and should) report instances of harassment and abuse without fear of retribution.

It’s also important for employers to provide training and policies regarding how to handle a customer who is harassing or threatening an employee. Employees need to have each other’s backs. While customer abuse is no one’s fault but the customer’s, it’s still good to have training in de-escalating situations so that they don’t become even worse. It’s generally best when a manager is called as soon as possible. They may make the decision to call the police if they believe it’s warranted.

Unfortunately, not all employers protect their employees as they should. Some don’t want to risk losing a good customer – even if it’s one who is sexually harassing employees or using racial, ethnic, homophobic or other slurs. Just telling a customer that they’ll get someone else to help them whom they feel more “comfortable” with is only letting the customer know that discriminatory behavior is acceptable in your establishment.

No one should be the victim of discrimination or harassment in the workplace – regardless of who the perpetrator is. If you’ve reported it to your employer and they haven’t taken the necessary steps to stop it, it’s wise to find out what your legal options are.