The phrase “the customer is always right” is often spoken in service industries. In the context of workplace discrimination and harassment, however, the customer is not always right. In fact, employers can be held liable for failing to address harassment and discrimination perpetrated by customers against employees.

Harassment and discrimination by customers can take a variety of forms:

  • Inappropriately touching staff members
  • Repeatedly making unwanted sexual advances
  • Using racial slurs against staff members
  • Refusing to be served by a staff member because of the person’s race, religion, gender or other protected characteristic

The offending customers themselves are generally not liable for this type of conduct, at least not by way of employment discrimination laws. However, employers who honor discriminatory requests by customers or ignore harassment that they knew or should have known was occurring may have to answer for their behavior in court.

One striking example is a 2010 case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Chaney v. Plainfield Health Center, involving a nursing care facility that violated the Civil Rights Act by acceding to a resident’s discriminatory demand that no black staff members enter her room or otherwise provide her with care. Citing that it was well-established that a company’s desire to cater to the racial preferences of its customers was no defense, the court found that the employee had raised genuine issues of fact sufficient to reach a jury.

If you were the victim of harassment by customers because of your race, gender, religious practices, disability or other protected characteristics, you may have legal options. An experienced employment discrimination and sexual harassment attorneys can determine if your employer acted illegally by allowing such conduct to continue.