Almost exclusively, claims of sexual harassment are brought against coworkers or supervisors. So what is an individual to do when the harasser falls outside of one of these two groups? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently brought suit against Costco in just such a situation and the case may also provide guidance for teachers as well. Hit the jump for all the details…
As in my previous post on an EEOC lawsuit (that one related to what information an employer can request of an individual returning from medical leave), bear in mind that the only information we have at this point is the allegations of the EEOC so there is no guarantee they are accurate.
According to the EEOC, Costco failed to protect one of it’s employees from sex discrimination when they failed to protect an employee from the unwanted sexual advances of a customer. The employee allegedly spoke several times with the store’s managers about being repeatedly pursued, approached, and confronted by a specific customer. The employee even went so far as to take out an order of protection against the customer. The EEOC alleges that while managers told the employee they would monitor the situation, when the customer continued to harass the employee, to the point where the employee contacted the police, management yelled at the employee and told her to be friendly to the customer. The employee then timely complained to the EEOC (remember you only have 180 days!) and the EEOC has filed suit on her behalf.
While it is still very early in the Costco lawsuit, there are some important takeaways for teachers. First, like the employee in the lawsuit, teachers are routinely around a group of individuals who are neither coworkers nor supervisors. Costco shows that if a student is routinely harassing a teacher, the employer may be liable for allowing the sexual harassment to continue. Fortunately, these circumstances are not common but hopefully school districts will use this situation as incentive to act quickly and decisively to end student-on-teacher harassment.
The second lesson to take away from the Costco decision is the necessity to inform, and even repeatedly inform, your employer if you are suffering harassment. This lesson holds true for harassment by supervisors or coworkers but it is especially important when making a claim regarding the behavior of a non-employee. While employers do have a duty to provide a harassment-free workplace, they can only do that to the extent they are aware of the harassment occurring. No matter how severe the harassment by the coworker or non-employee may be, the employer is not going to be liable unless they have been notified and given a chance to rectify.
Dealing with sexual harassment can be emotionally overwhelming, therefore it is important to talk to someone if you believe you are being discriminated against. Missouri NEA members should immediately contact their UniServ Director so they can provide support. Many districts have internal processes that can be initiated to stop harassment without needing the intervention of the EEOC or expensive litigation and your UniServ Director can help guide you through that process. Just keep in mind that no matter what you do, you only have 180 days from the last instance of discrimination to file a complaint with the EEOC so don’t delay!