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Sexually Harassed by a Client but Employer Won't Take Action

Atkinson & Frampton, PLLC June 28, 2023

In 2022, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the nation’s discrimination and harassment laws, issued a report on sexual harassment in the workplace, which covered data and charges filed from 2018 to 2021. 2018 and 2019 peaked at 7,500-plus charges of workplace sexual harassment nationwide. The report notes that “Women filed 78.2% of the 27,291 sexual harassment charges received between FY 2018 and FY 2021.” It also noted that nearly half of the sexual harassment charges were filed along with retaliation charges. 

This fact most likely reflects what is called “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, in which an employee is asked for favors in order to retain their job, get a promotion, or have a vacation or other request approved. If there is no quid pro quo, the employer or supervisor might retaliate. 

Keep in mind, however, that sexual harassment is not limited to incidents between employees and supervisors, or between employees and coworkers. Sexual harassment can also occur between employees and visitors, such as clients or customers, vendors, and professional support persons who frequent the place of work.   

In all of these occurrences, the employer is obligated under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation to protect the employee, investigate the allegations, and put a stop to any sexual harassment, or any other type of harassment. West Virginia laws also apply. 

If you are a victim of sexual harassment by a client, customer, or other third party who frequents your workplace in or around Charleston, West Virginia, contact us at Atkinson & Frampton, PLLC. We are employment law attorneys who understand all pertinent state and federal laws pertaining to workplace sexual harassment, and we will help you exercise your rights to have a harassment-free work experience. Our team proudly serves clients throughout the state, including Morgantown, Huntington, Beckley, Martinsburg, and Parkersburg.  

Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment 

Not only does the Civil Rights Act require employers to provide harassment-free work environments, but so does the West Virginia Human Rights Act (HRA). The HRA requires that employers ensure “an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, or insult,” which includes protection from “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature….”  

Federal sexual harassment laws are overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the HRA in West Virginia falls under the purview of the state’s Human Rights Commission. Both agencies will field charges and investigate if they seem serious enough. 

Defining Sexual Harassment 

According to the EEOC, petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents do not typically rise to the level of being illegal. Instead, there are two broad categories of sexual harassment that are not allowed. The first, as mentioned above, is quid pro quo. The other category of sexual harassment is offensive conduct that leads to a hostile work environment. 

  • QUID PRO QUO: This is generally an internal type of sexual harassment between an employee and a supervisor, though it could be with a coworker. The EEOC defines this as occurring when submission to unwelcome sexual conduct is “made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment." 

  • HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT: Often this, too, can occur internally, but it can also result from third parties who frequent the workplace, whether clients, customers, vendors, outside contractors, or others. This generally means that pervasive and continuing behavior and/or policies impede someone's ability to perform their job because of the level of hostility and discomfort. 

Employers’ Responsibility Toward Third Parties and Workplace Sexual Harassment 

Under state and federal law, employers are required to provide workplaces free from harassment and discrimination. This means they must have policies and procedures in place in the event of sexual harassment and other illegal acts. Employers have a legal obligation to protect employees not only from internal hostility, including unwanted advances, quid pro quo, and offensive behavior, but also when outsiders who visit the premises commit the same actions. 

These policies and procedures must include not only a reporting mechanism but also an investigative standard. When it comes to third-party sexual harassment reported by an employee, the employer must take it seriously and investigate it. If necessary, the employer can ask the third party to cease their conduct or even end the relationship—but sometimes the simpler route for the employer is to reassign or restation the harassed employee so as not to encounter the harasser anymore. 

What to Do If You’re Sexually Harassed by a Client, Customer, or Other Outsider? 

The first step is to ask the person to stop and make clear you do not appreciate what’s being done. If the person doesn’t stop, then you should report everything to your employer through whatever mechanism is in place—for instance, by reporting everything to Human Resources. 

What to Do If Your Employer Fails to Act 

If your employer fails to act on your report, you can always report everything to the EEOC or to the West Virginia Human Rights Commission. Generally, you must make a report and wait for the agency to investigate before you can file a lawsuit against your employer. A lawsuit against a third party may be possible. It’s important in these instances to speak to an attorney about all of your options. 

Let Us Represent You 

No one should have to experience any kind of workplace harassment. If you’re the victim of outside sexual harassment in your workplace anywhere in West Virginia, reach out to us immediately at Atkinson & Frampton, PLLC. We will listen to your story and will investigate to determine your best possible course of action. Our attorneys have an ongoing record of success in handling harassment and discrimination cases. Let us help you strategize a path forward.