Dear Counselor: Employer has a duty to protect staff from abusive customer

Question: I work for a small business as an assistant to the office manager. When customers have a service-related issue and refuse to pay an invoice, my boss makes me the first one to call and inquire about it. In other words, I get an earful from the customer about what has gone wrong. It’s the part of the job I dislike the most, but I have grown a thicker skin over the last few years.

After one particularly tough call, the customer replied to me with a nasty email that included a somewhat personal attack on me as a middle-aged woman. The guy has written a few more emails to me.

Although most of the anger is directed at my boss, the emails do refer to my interaction with him. He is careful not to make explicit threats, but he does say things like he hopes that I “get a taste of what it’s like.” I pointed out to my boss the customer’s emails, and he told me to just ignore them.

I have ignored them, but I have received a few more. I am worried that this customer’s behavior is going to escalate — that he is just going to show up in front of me somewhere sometime and really freak me out. Is my boss required to do something about this? If he doesn’t do something, can I get something done?

Answer: Most workplaces have detailed policies protecting an employee from harassment from another employee. In California, employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide training to spot harassment. Over the years, employees have become increasingly aware of harassment and many people can identify problematic behavior. However, the question is whether the legal requirements for the employer change when the harassment is initiated by a customer or third party.

Customers believe that the “customer is always right,” and that an employer’s policy does not necessarily apply to them. Often, employers instruct their employees that the customer is always right.

But employers should take note of certain customers. Under California law, an employer who has been notified of a customer’s conduct that constitutes harassment may be liable to the employee even when that third party (i.e., customer or independent contractor) is the sole cause of the harassment.

The law used to hold an employer liable only for the conduct of its employees. But after some troubling cases, our Legislature in 2005 expanded the law to cover harassment not only by employees but by any person — even a customer. The law effectively places a duty on employers to take appropriate action when employees complain of harassment from customers or independent contractors.

It appears that you informed your employer of the first round of emails received. Your comment about having a “thick skin” suggests that you encounter a number of situations such as these. But you should certainly inform your boss about the subsequent and ongoing course of conduct here and why you believe it crosses a line.

While nasty emails are likely part of any customer service issue, the ongoing pattern of emails and their personal attacks here suggests something greater.

After being notified of the harassing conduct, the employer must take appropriate and corrective action. That can vary depending on the circumstances, but your boss should intervene and take this matter off your hands. There should be some investigation, which may include your boss directly contacting this angry customer.

Should the matter escalate, California law also provides other protection. If this customer confronts you outside of work, you may want to seek the protection of the court in the form of a workplace violence restraining order. A restraining order can be issued to prevent someone from engaging in a course of conduct, such as continued harassing emails or threats of violence. Only an employer can file a request for a workplace violence restraining order.

As an individual, however, you can file a civil harassment restraining order on the same grounds. Your employer should pay the cost of obtaining this protection for you.

Although most people are aware of harassment in the context of employees interacting with one another, harassment from a customer or any other person outside the business can be less obvious. Customer service should include problem-solving and patience but doesn’t necessarily include being abused.


Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm providing family law, estate planning and trust litigation representation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at http://kopperlaw.com.

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By | 2017-09-20T08:44:04+00:00 August 6th, 2017|Dear Counselor|0 Comments

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