Sexual harassment can look very different in different circumstances, which is one reason why many people find the term confusing or vague. There is often an incorrect assumption that sexual harassment in the workplace must involve a boss or co-worker abusing, harassing or discriminating against someone else because of their gender.

However, sexual harassment doesn’t just happen when your boss offers you a promotion in exchange for sexual favors. Sexual harassment can also look like inappropriate behavior on the part of customers or clients. Female employees, in particular those in service jobs, may find themselves subject to abusive sexual behaviors by customers or clients that no one would expect them to tolerate if they came from coworkers or supervisors.

It’s important to understand that your obligation to take care of clients and customers does not oblige you to accept abusive behavior such as inappropriate touching, sexual commentary or unwanted propositions. You should report any abusive harassment to a manager or supervisor and ask for assistance as soon as possible.

Your employer must provide a safe work environment

Employed people deserve to earn their living in a safe, reasonable environment. No one should have to tolerate a hostile work environment just to pay their bills. It is not just your co-workers who can create a hostile work environment. Customers and clients can also make your job feel demeaning or stressful by behaving or speaking in an inappropriate manner.

Your employer has an obligation to take action when you report sexual discrimination or harassment in the workplace, even if the person subjecting you to mistreatment is a paying customer or client, not an employee. Any language, inappropriate touching or gestures that make you feel uncomfortable that come from clients are as serious and abusive as the same misbehavior on the part of a co-worker.

A manager or supervisor should offer to intervene, and their actions to protect you in the workplace should potentially include ending the professional relationship with the individual being abusive or harassing you. Kicking someone out of a bar or ending a client contract with someone who manhandles staff may cost the company money in the short term, but it protects the company in the long run by keeping the employees happy and free from abuse.

If your employer sides with the abuser, you can take action

Unfortunately, it is all too common for women in the service industry or sales to discover that their employer values the financial contributions of an abusive customer more than the hard work of someone they employ.

If your employer does not take adequate steps to protect you from abusive customers, document your complaints, record the names of witnesses and prepare yourself for potential legal action against your employer. Only by holding companies accountable for the hostile work environment they create can staff members force a culture change that protects workers and their rights.