In a recent federal court lawsuit against Costco, the warehouse retail giant is being charged by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for creating a sexually hostile workplace for failing to protect a female worker from “unwelcome advances” from a customer.
John Rowe, EEOC’s district director in Chicago, said the agency’s investigation found the employee had repeatedly complained to managers at one of its stores. She was “pursued, approached, and confronted in the Costco by the man,” stated an EEOC release. “One of her managers apparently told the young woman that he agreed the man was ‘not right’ and that Costco would monitor the situation,” Rowe said. “But what actually happened was that when the situation persisted and the employee complained to the police, Costco management allegedly yelled at her and told her to be friendly to the customer.”
Eventually, the employee resigned because of the harassment and filed a claim with the EEOC.
John Hendrickson, EEOC regional attorney in Chicago said, “All employers have a duty to protect employees from sexual harassment whatever form that harassment may take – whether it’s lewd remarks, groping, propositioning or stalking. No employer gets a pass because it is a customer targeting its employee, rather than a manager or fellow employee. That’s particularly true when the harassment is especially egregious. If the employer permits the harassment to continue, it’s compounding its liability and troubles.”
Although most sexual harassment claims arise from harassment in the workplace by a supervisor or co-worker, this complaint against Costco serves to remind employers that they may be liable for sex discrimination if the harasser is a client or customer and the employer fails to take proper steps to protect an employee. It is imperative to training employee to promptly report incidents of alleged sexual harassment, including those perpetrated by customers, and make sure employees know whom to contact to report an incident. In addition, prompt and proper follow-up is essential, as well as avoidance of any actions against the employee who filed the complaint that could be construed as retaliation.
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