Employer Liable for Customer Harassment of Employee

February 22, 1999
An employer may be liable for harassment of employees by customers when it has the knowledge and means to prevent it.

Rena Lockard, a waitress for a Pizza Hut franchise, was repeatedly subjected to sexually harassing comments and conduct by two customers. Lockard informed her supervisor of the harassment and asked that she not be required to wait on the men again. Despite this request, she was forced to continue waiting on the two men. After one of the men grabbed her and put his mouth on her breast, Lockard quit. Lockard refused a production position and sued for hostile work environment sexual harassment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Lockard was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed. When Lockard’s supervisor was notified of the harassment, the employer was required to respond promptly and adequately, but instead did nothing. The court noted that employers who tolerate a hostile harassing environment should be liable, regardless of whether the harasser is a coworker or a customer. Lockard vs. Pizza Hut Inc., 10th Cir., 97-7027, 97-7078, 12/14/98.

Employers are advised that when they have knowledge of customer harassment and the means to prevent it, they may be held liable.

Source: D. Diane Hatch, Ph. D., a human resources consultant based in San Francisco, and James E. Hall, an attorney with the law firm of Barlow, Kobata & Denis, with offices in Los Angeles and Chicago.