A few years back we talked about a case in which a Costco customer stalked one of the company’s employees while she was at work. He would ask her creepy, personal questions while she was alone in the back aisles of the Costco store where she worked, and would disguise himself and stare at her while she restocked items. He did this on a number of occasions, and the employee, understandably frightened, complained about it to Costco.
Costco had a pretty tepid response to this behavior, which clearly constituted stalking. It did not ban the stalker from the store, but merely told him not to talk with the employee anymore. Costco told the employee to report any instances of further harassment to her supervisor. However, when she did this, her managers did very little, and on one occasion even told her to be friendly to her stalker. Over the next 13 months, he visited the Costco store at least 20 times to watch the employee and ask her creepy questions.
The employee finally went to the police and the courts and obtained a no-contact order against him. Still, Costco did nothing more than instruct the customer to shop at another store. The employee eventually took medical leave due to emotional trauma and never returned, which caused Costco to fire her. The EEOC, on the employee’s behalf, then filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Costco, claiming that it discriminated against the employee on the basis of her sex by failing to effectively respond to her complaints.
Costco argued that its response to the customer’s conduct was “tepid,” and did not rise to the level of sexual harassment. It claimed that the customer did not make vulgar or lewd statements, and did not touch the employee in a sexual way. The court disagreed, finding that the customer’s conduct constituted harassment. Even though it was not overtly sexual, the average person would still find it to be frightening and intimidating. The court found Costco’s response to the employee’s complaints too weak and admonished it for failing to do more to prevent the harassment.
This case shows that employers need to take measures to keep their employees safe at work. They cannot brush off complaints that employees make about harassment, even if it is by a customer. The customer is not always right—certainly not when he is stalking an employee, and an employer should take strong measures to stop harassment. Costco should have banned the employee from its store and reported the customer’s conduct to the police.
Feel free to contact me if you have questions about dealing with problem customers.