Employers can’t control everything—including situations in which customers harass employees.
As long as you take reasonable measures to prevent or stop blatant harassment, a single incident won’t mean you will be liable for customer harassment.
Recent case: Adrian, who is black, worked for a bakery as a delivery and sales person. His work performance was spotty. In fact, he had received two oral reprimands, two written reprimands, two letters of concern, a counseling session and a suspension. That was all before a final incident that led to his discharge: Adrian allegedly falsified a report to cover up a problem about the timing of a delivery.
Around the same time he was accused of falsifying the record, he complained to the customer’s HR department that one of its managers had called him a racial slur. He said the deli manager said, “Who the f**k does this n****r think he’s talking to, I’m not checking in this n****r.” Adrian’s employer investigated, but couldn’t verify that the slurs were used.
It then fired Adrian for the delivery error and subsequent record falsification as well as general.
He sued, alleging discrimination and a hostile work environment.
The court tossed out his claims, reasoning that poor performance was a legitimate reason for termination and that the employer wasn’t responsible for the single incident of inappropriate racial slurs (if that’s what really happened). The court praised the employer’s prompt investigation. (Muldrow v. Schmidt Baking Company, No. 12-2366, 4th Cir., 2013)
Final note: What should you do when a customer harasses your employee? If the culprit is a customer’s employee, insist on appropriate discipline. If the customer is someone over whom you have no influence, you can and should bar the harasser from your premises.
- The HR I.Q. Test: October '08
- Dozing at the desk? Sleepy on the shop floor? You may need to offer ADA accommodations
- Service-related health problem seems minor? Employee might still have ADA disability claim
- Fair harassment investigation can justify firing supervisor
- Penalize the worst of the worst more harshly