Discrimination and harassment in the workplace are sad realities. Worse still, anyone can be a perpetrator, not just their colleagues. Customers can also display unwelcome behavior and contribute to a hostile work environment. If employers do not fix the situation, they can be held liable.
What is a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is one where employees feel unsafe due to unwelcome behavior such as harassment, discrimination and violence. It can make it hard for them to do their job.
Both employees and outsiders alike may be to blame for creating a toxic work environment. For example, customers who use racial slurs or guests who joke about staff’s sexual orientation can make employees feel uncomfortable at work.
When are employers liable for a nonemployee’s discriminatory behavior?
By law, employers must provide their employees with a safe and nondiscriminatory place to work. This means taking steps to keep workers safe from abuse and discrimination, even if it comes from people who are not employees, like customers, clients, vendors or guests.
However, employers are not automatically responsible for the actions of nonemployees. They would only be liable if the worker reported the incident and the employer failed to take immediate and corrective action.
This was the case in 2020 when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a harassment lawsuit against a nursing home. After receiving several complaints from Black employees regarding racial harassment from patients, the nursing home essentially told staff to bear it.
Employees should not have to accept harassment just because their employer refuses to act. If an employer does not see a problem with a nonemployee’s unwelcome behavior, the employee might consider consulting an employment lawyer. An attorney can act as their ally, advocating for them and their rights.