If you have employees who deal directly with customers, how they handle those interactions may be grounds for dismissal.
When a customer complaint plays a role in a discharge decision, make sure you can locate that customer later. Customers’ testimonies can be powerful in court because juries tend to view customers as impartial.
Recent case: Mona Hamza, a practicing Muslim, claims she was fired from her Saks Fifth Avenue sales position for leaving early during Ramadan. She said her religion required her to leave, and her discharge was discrimination based on her faith.
However, Saks Fifth Avenue said it terminated Hamza because of poor customer service, not because of her religion or any other illegal reason. As evidence, it proposed calling as a witness a customer who was present during an argument between Hamza and her supervisor. Saks said that would be evidence of insubordination.
Hamza’s attorneys fought unsuccessfully to have the witness excluded. The court said the customer’s testimony was relevant to determining what happened and whether the retailer fired Hamza for the reason it gave and not discrimination. (Hamza v. Saks Fifth Avenue, No. 07-CIV-5974, SD NY, 2011)
Caution: Understand that, in HR, the customer is not always right. Remember, customer preferences for dealing with employees of a particular race, ethnicity or national origin can’t factor into your decisions. You can’t fire someone or hire only particular applicants just because that’s what customers prefer.
You can’t use customers’ distaste for hearing foreign languages as an excuse for imposing English-only rules. You can require employees to speak English to customers who prefer it, but you can’t absolutely ban foreign languages any more than you can ban religious garb like head scarves. Employers can’t indulge customer prejudice at the expense of employees.