Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws prohibiting harassment on the basis of protected categories extend to harassment by customers, and employers can be held liable if they don’t take action to put a stop to it.

That point was made clear by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case dating back to 1998. In Lockard v. Pizza Hut, Rena Lockard alleged that while waitressing at a Pizza Hut franchise in Oklahoma, she was repeatedly subjected to inappropriate comments and conduct by two male customers. At first, one of the men remarked that her hair smelled good and asked her what kind of perfume she wore. When she said it was none of his business, the man grabbed her by the hair.

Lockard reported the conduct to her supervisor and asked that he assign someone else to wait on the men. The supervisor refused her request and instructed her to serve the customers, saying, “You were hired to be a waitress. You waitress.”  When she returned to the table, the men sexually assaulted her.

She quit on the spot and sued her employer for the customers’ sexual harassment.  The court held the employer liable, stating that an employer violates Title VII if it knows or should have known of harassing conduct by a customer and fails to take appropriate corrective action. Lockard told her supervisor about the offensive conduct, and rather than take action to stop it, he sent her right back into the lion’s den.

The Lockard case is a good reminder for Human Resources professionals that employers must take measures to protect their employees from harassment no matter who’s doing the harassing.  Check your anti-harassment policy to ensure it includes “customer harassment” among the types of conduct that are prohibited, and make sure your employees know that they need to report customer harassment when it first occurs.