Employers can’t cater to every customer’s whim, but they can respond to complaints about employee behavior without worrying that a judge will second-guess their decision.
Two examples: A customer complains that she heard an employee speaking Spanish and suggests the company hire only native English speakers. Another customer complains that an employee treated her poorly because of her sexual orientation. In the first case, the employer can’t honor the customer’s request—that would be illegal national-origin discrimination.
But in the second case, the employer can discipline or even discharge the employee if the employer believes the customer’s account. An honestly held belief that an employee treated a customer poorly is a legitimate reason to punish an employee.
Recent case: Diana Hutchinson, who is black and from Jamaica, worked at a Bennigan’s restaurant. She and another host were fired when a customer told a manager that the women had stared at her and her female partner. The hosts also allegedly made inappropriate comments about the customer’s apparent sexual orientation.
Hutchinson sued, alleging discrimination. She said the customer complaint was just a pretext for discriminatory firing. But the court disagreed, finding the manager fired the hosts because he believed they had treated customers poorly. (Hutchinson v. Scull, et al., No. 06-2114, 3rd Cir., 2007)
Final note: Make sure you have revised your employee handbook to explain the company’s obligation to treat all customers well, regardless of their sexual orientation.