Employee can’t physically assault alleged harasser unless she is in danger

When a customer harasses an employee, the employer may be held liable for allowing a hostile work environment if it knew about the potential problem.

However, the employee has a responsibility to report the incident.

What’s more, the employee can’t use physical force against the alleged harasser unless the incident is so severe that the employee is clearly in physical danger.

Recent case: Lauren, age 18, worked at a convenience store.

A male customer came in, engaged her in conversation and asked if she had a boyfriend. He also made suggestive comments. While the man was still there, two police officers walked in, but Lauren never spoke with them about the customer’s behavior.

After the officers left, Lauren told a co-worker that she was taking a cigarette break.

The customer followed Lauren outside and then blocked the door. Lauren told him to “back off.” He said, “What are you going to do about it?” Then she burned him with her cigarette.

He complained to management the next day, and Lauren was terminated after a review of surveillance tape.

Lauren sued, alleging that she had been forced to work in a hostile work environment and had no choice but to burn the customer.

The court disagreed, concluding she could have reported the incident to the officers or a manager, but instead acted on her own although the customer had not touched her or threatened her. Lauren’s lawsuit was dismissed. (Hales v. Casey’s Marketing, 8th Cir., 2018)