Sexual harassment comes in different forms. A demand to trade sexual favors for an employment-related benefit is an obvious type of harassment that's easy to identify. Other behavior is more subtle. Flirting, wolf whistles, off-color jokes and unwanted touching can constitute sexual harassment whether the unwanted attention comes from a coworker or a customer.
Kinds of Harassment
There are two kinds of sexual harassment. With the first kind, a single incident is enough to trigger a harassment claim. This includes such behavior as demanding sexual favors in exchange for a promotion, and retaliating against an employee who rebuffed the harasser's unwanted sexual advances. The second kind of harassment occurs when events that might not be illegal in isolation -- such as flirting and telling off-color jokes -- occur so often or are so severe that the cumulative effect of the events creates a hostile environment in the workplace.
Kinds of Harassers
Just as there are different types of sexual harassment, there are different types of harassers. Virtually anyone in the workplace environment can be a harasser. An employee of the victim's company, such as a manager, supervisor, or coworker, can perpetrate sexual harassment, and non-employees such as vendors or customers can also play the role of a harasser. The fact that the offensive behavior takes place in the workplace context, where an employer is responsible for knowing what's going on, may be enough to make the employer liable for a customer's behavior.
You may not have to resort to filing a lawsuit to stop sexual harassment by a customer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests that you tell a customer who is harassing you that his behavior is offensive and that you want it to stop. Follow your company's procedure for reporting harassing behavior, whether it involves verbally reporting harassment to a supervisor or submitting a formal written report of the incident. Reporting an incident puts your employer on notice that there is a problem with the customer. Documenting the offending conduct, including such details as what happened and when, how you responded to it, who witnessed it and whom you told about it, can help support your case if you file a claim or a lawsuit. Take pictures of offensive signs or pictures, and save copies of harassing email messages. These records can help an EEOC investigator or an attorney assess your case.
Suing your Boss
In some cases, you may sue your boss for sexual harassment committed by a customer. You must follow a sequence of events to get to the point where you can file suit. First, within 180 days of the last episode of harassment, you file a claim with the EEOC. You may ask the EEOC to investigate your case. If you do, the investigation can take up to a year to complete, and the investigation may reveal your employer's side of the story, which is good to know when you decide whether to file suit. The EEOC must rule that you have a right to sue your employer for harassment before you can file a civil suit. If the EEOC ruling goes against you, you may appeal it. You may also file a companion claim with a state agency that investigates sexual harassment claims.