The takeaway from this post is simple — a hostile work environment can be created in any way, by anybody, or by any means, if the employer does not address an employee complaint that the workplace is hostile.
To resurrect an old chestnut of a story that we like to tell: On March 25, 2012 we asked in this blog whether a parrot can be a sexual harasser. Well, no, the parrot is not a harasser in the legal sense, but an employer can be liable for creating a hostile work environment if he permits sexual comments to be made to an offended employee, whether by a co-worker, or a mail deliverer or even by a parrot.
This was a real case — a parrot who was kept by a patient in an expensive long-term care facility repeatedly shouted sexual imprecations to the attending female nurse, who was none too happy about it. She complained to her supervisor who laughed her off, so she sued for sexual harassment and won. The parrot was judgment proof, so we suspect that the facility had to pay the judgment.
As an example of this takeaway, the EEOC settled a class action lawsuit for $200,000 against a restaurant for permitting female servers to be sexually harassed by a customer, a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy, who allegedly frequently grabbed their breasts and buttocks, made frequent sexual innuendos, and invited them to join in a ménage a trois.
The EEOC’s regional attorney put it correctly: “Title VII requires an employer to prevent known sexual harassment created by other employees or customers … regardless of the status of the harasser.”
Way back on September 15, 2011 we wrote about an 84 year old retail customer in Oregon hanging out near the employee time clock in a large grocery chain’s store repeatedly groped three female employees – sometimes multiple times daily. One of the employees unsuccessfully complained to management to ban the customer from the store. The EEOC thereafter filed a lawsuit on behalf of the employees, alleging that the employer created a sexually hostile work environment.
Now we have learned that the same store will pay $487,000 to seven of its Oregon workers to settle the action (this is the retailer’s second settlement with the EEOC in just over five years, and we are not quite sure whether this settlement relates to the 2011 case — but it is substantially similar at a minimum). The EEOC found that female employees “were sexually harassed by the same customer from at least 2007. The man visited the store almost daily, and often several times a day, and he would make lewd comments to employees and customers, in addition to grabbing employees, cornering them, touching their breasts, and pulling one employee onto his lap.”
One plaintiff said that “I was terrorized at work and so stressed worrying about what would happen when this customer came into the store.” Guess that this is the hallmark of “hostile work environment.”
Once again, an attorney for the EEOC provided the takeaway: “Employers are responsible for ensuring a harassment-free workplace for their employees, regardless if the harasser is a co-worker, manager or customer. There should be no tolerance for repeat offenders and serial harassers.”