Employees are entitled to work in a harassment-free environment—and that includes more than freedom from harassment by supervisors and co-workers. Employers also have to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment by customers, clients and others over which the employer has some control.
Recent case: Ernest Nelson worked part time as a resident caretaker for a community action program in Anoka County. The program provides housing for the disabled and low-income residents.
Nelson claimed a female client was sexually harassing him by repeatedly exposing herself and making sexually explicit suggestions. Nelson said the woman exposed herself regularly, sometimes twice a day, and that it made him feel demeaned, embarrassed and offended. Nelson told his supervisors about the harassment, but claimed they did nothing to stop the woman’s behavior.
Eventually, he filed an EEOC complaint and followed up with a lawsuit alleging a sexually hostile environment.
The court said his case could go to trial. A jury will decide whether the alleged harassment was severe enough to affect his job and whether the agency did enough to prevent the behavior in the first place or stop it from happening repeatedly.
The court did hint that the nature of Nelson’s job might make it less likely his claim would win out. Many of the program’s clients have mental disabilities, making it difficult for the agency to prevent such inappropriate behavior. (Nelson v. Anoka County Community Action Program, No. 07-4693, DC MN, 2008)
Final note: Don’t be shy about empowering managers and supervisors to stop customer harassment. This is one situation in which the customer is wrong.
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