When customers cross the line

Employers can be liable for harassment of workers not only by other workers, but also by customers. But often, managers who’d have no qualms about investigating—or firing—a harassing co-worker are nervous about jeopardizing a customer relationship. Here’s some advice for handling this difficult situation:

Legal obligations. Your legal obligation as an employer is no different when customers are involved. Your responsibility is to provide employees with a discrimination-free workplace, not simply to refrain from such behavior yourself. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the harassment occurs outside the workplace if it happens while the employee is “at work.” 

So you need to investigate, take remedial action if the charges are justified and make sure there’s no retaliation against the harassed employee. As with harassment involving co-workers, your potential liability will depend in part on whether the enterprise knew, or should have known, about the harassment and did anything to stop it. The cost of doing nothing—in terms of money, bad publicity, lost productivity and lowered workplace morale—can easily be greater than the cost of losing one bad customer.

“Employer control.” But, you may ask, even if I know about the harassment and investigate, isn’t it ultimately a matter between the worker and the customer? It depends. In addition to whether you knew or should have known, and whether you did anything about it, your liability can depend on the degree of control you have over the customer and the situation. 

In many cases, your “control” is pretty obvious; it’s your business and you reserve the right to refuse service. You can order a customer to leave, or you can have another employee serve that customer. The harassed employee may want you to take stronger measures— like banning the customer entirely—but the courts are more concerned with stopping the harassment. Punishing the customer is your call.

A case study. Here’s what not to do, in a real-life case involving a pizza parlor: Two men come in, and the waitress—the only woman of five servers on duty—refuses to serve them based on past experience. The shift manager doesn’t ask for details (that is, he doesn’t investigate) and orders her to serve them. One of the men grabs and pulls her hair. 

She complains again to the manager, asking that a male server take the table. The manager refuses. When she returns to the table, one of the men pulls her down (by the hair) into his lap and fondles her. She quits on the spot. The manager’s refusal to exercise “control” in this situation—which was also against the chain’s policy—cost the restaurant more than $200,000 in damages.

Other conflicts. Harassment suits are pretty clear-cut cases where the customer is not always right, and the courts and federal agencies have established guidelines for employers to follow. But what about other kinds of conflicts between workers and customers? 

Typically, customer service is a key part of the enterprise’s mission and values, and a worker who gets into on-the-job disputes with customers would be a “problem employee.” While smart managers will want to hear both sides of the story before making any judgment, it’s reasonable to expect employees to avoid provoking conflicts—even when the customer is being unreasonable.