Does California Law Protect Against Workplace Harassment by Customers?

“The customer is always right.” That’s the longtime adage, anyway. But it’s dead wrong when it comes to workplace harassment. Both California and federal laws protect employees against workplace harassment by customers, as well as colleagues and supervisors.California workplace harassment by customers

This is true whether your clients are high-level investors, bar patrons, retail shoppers, or patients.

You have the right to work in a harassment-free environment. That goes not just for sexual harassment, but harassment on the basis of any protected class – disability, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, military or veteran status, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy or related condition, etc. In California, this right also extends to independent contractors, not just employees. A harassment-free workplace is not a privilege. It’s not up for debate. It is your right.

If your employer has failed to protect you from workplace harassment by customers, you need to get on the phone with a Los Angeles employment lawyer as soon as possible. The company/employer could be held liable for failure to protect you from harassment perpetrated by non-employees, so long as there is evidence they knew or should have known about it and failed to take swift and reasonable steps to stop it.

Depending on the nature of the harassment, you might have only 180 days from the date of the last incident to initiate your complaint (if it’s a federal-level complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). You probably have longer for state-level claims, but these aren’t “wait and see” situations. Fast action is recommended.

Laws that Protect Employees from Customer Harassment

Both federal and state laws protect against workers being subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of harassment.

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It is defined by the EEOC as conduct that is unwelcome and based on one’s protected class status. It crosses the threshold into illegal when:

  • Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.
  • The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

It’s also unlawful to forbid harassment in retaliation for filing a discrimination claim and/or participating in an investigation into the employer’s labor practices.

As noted in the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Fried v. Wynn Las Vegas, an employer’s response (or lack thereof) to a third party’s unwelcome sexual advances toward an employee can independently create a hostile work environment. (In that case, a salon worker reported to his manager that he was sexually propositioned by a customer, and the manager directed the worker to return to the customer to complete the pedicure. He was later mocked about the incident by co-workers at least twice. The trial court granted summary judgment to the employer, finding the co-workers’ actions insufficient to establish workplace harassment. However, the federal appeals court reversed, ruling the manager’s failure to take immediate corrective action and to compel the employee to continue servicing the customer was an adequate basis on which to assert a hostile work environment. Further, the co-workers’ comments should be considered in that cumulative context.)

In California the Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, is even more all-encompassing in its anti-harassment provisions. It also requires employers with five or more employees to:

  • Have a harassment prevention policy.
  • Provide mandatory sexual harassment training that meets certain standards
  • Follow certain guidelines to prevent harassment, and remedy it if it’s reported
  • Conduct prompt and thorough investigations of reported workplace harassment – whether it’s by colleagues, customers, or workplace visitors
  • Initiate prompt and effective corrective action if harassment is proven

Failure to meet these criteria opens the employer to potential liability in a California employment lawsuit. (Note: Sexual harassment is illegal in every workplace in California, regardless of the number of employees.)

It’s worth noting that sexual desire isn’t a component of sexual harassment. Male customers can unlawfully harass male workers, while female customers can unlawfully harass female workers. The employee doesn’t even need to be the intended target of the harassment, so long as they can show that it resulted in them being subjected to a work environment that was hostile.

If you have been victimized by harassment by customers at work in Southern California, our Los Angeles employment lawyers can provide insight into your legal options.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Fried v. Wynn Las Vegas, Nov. 18, 2021, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

California Court: Employer Not Liable for Boss’s Sexual Texts to Employee, April 30, 2023, Los Angeles Employment Lawyer Blog

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