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Sexual Harassment by Employer's Customers is Illegal Too

The majority of sexual harassment cases arise because an employee is sexually harassed by a co-worker. But sometimes they are brought by an employee who is being harassed by the employer's customers, and where the employer takes no action to intervene.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hit Costco Wholesale Corp. with a sexual harassment suit in Illinois federal court on Monday over its alleged failure to protect a female worker from being stalked by a customer.

By neglecting to shield former employee Dawn Suppo from the advances of a "warehouse member" customer, Costco ran afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC said in a statement Monday.

The agency's Chicago district director, John Rowe, said the EEOC's investigation showed Suppo had repeatedly complained to her managers about being pursued and confronted by the man at the Glenview, Illinois store, where she had worked. But despite her complaints, and the fact that she eventually secured a protection order against the customer for stalking, Costco's managers allegedly didn't take steps to resolve the situation, according to the EEOC.

These incidents occurred despite Costco agreeing that the man was "not right" and stating that they would monitor the situation, and when Suppo eventually complained to the police, Costco management yelled at her and told her to be friendly to the customer.

According to the EEOC's complaint, the agency first tried to solve the issue outside of litigation and invited Costco to engage informal conciliation efforts on May 31, 2013. However, roughly three weeks later, it became clear that the agency couldn't eliminate the problem through conciliation, the EECO said.

The suit alleges that Costco discriminated against Suppo by creating and tolerating a sexually hostile work environment consisting of offensive sexual comments, unwelcome touching and advances and the customer's stalking. The company ultimately "constructively discharg[ed]" her, meaning that Suppo allegedly resigned due to the harassment, according to the suit.

The EEOC said in its statement that Title VII's sexual discrimination protections include being stalked while working, with Chicago-area EEOC attorney John Hendrickson adding that employers must protect workers even if the harassment comes from a customer.

"No employer gets a pass because it is a customer targeting its employee, rather than a manager or fellow employee," Hendrickson said. "If the employer permits the harassment to continue, it's compounding its liability and troubles."

This was not Costco's first experience with a sexual harassment suit. It was also recently hit with a proposed class action in California state court by a former employee alleging the company had retaliated against him for reporting sexual harassment to the management.

If your job involves dealing with the public, and you are sexually harassed by a customer, be sure to report the incident to your employer immediately. If your employer takes no action to stop the harassment, then you should consult an employment lawyer so that your legal rights are enforced.

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