Human Resources News & Insights

EEOC: Yes, you have to protect employees from this too

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accused this employer of making a big mistake, and the employer is now paying $250,000 for it. 

The employer? Costco, the Washington state-based international warehouse club.

The mistake? Failing to intervene when it became known one of its employees was being harassed by a customer.

As the EEOC pointed out in a press release about the Costco situation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires an employer to protect employees from harassment based on sex … period.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if the harasser is a co-worker (more common) or a customer (less common), the employer has an obligation to stop it.

Went on for a year

The EEOC, which sued Costco on the victim’s behalf, accused the wholesale club of failing for more than a year to prevent a male customer from harassing and stalking a female employee in its Glenview, IL, facility.

The agency said the harassment included unwelcome touching, advances and stalking. The lawsuit also accused Costco’s management of failing to intervene despite the employee reporting the customer’s conduct to management — in addition to the customer himself admitting to having ongoing contact with the employee.

The victim was eventually forced to obtain a restraining order against the customer, according to the lawsuit.

Following a seven-day trial, a jury unanimously ruled in the EEOC’s favor and awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages to the victim, who no longer works for Costco.

John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago district office had this message for employers at the conclusion of the Costco trial:

“This case is an important reminder that employers have a duty to protect its employees from harassment by customers. “

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