“Hold your horses, Rochelle,” floor supervisor Bea Groznik told Rochelle Norris, one of the sales clerks reporting to her. “Let Marcy serve these folks,” Bea beckoned to another clerk, “and we’ll go to my office to discuss this.”
Once Bea had closed the door, Rochelle exploded.
“This is the fourth time that woman and her friend have insisted on having a white clerk serve them. I thought we agreed last time that we’d tell them either they accept my help or go shop elsewhere,” she blurted.
“First,” Bea said, “I know how hurtful it must be to you as an African-American to see customers refuse your help because of your race. Personally, I think it’s unacceptable. And I do remember what you and I agreed to do after those two came in last week.
“But in the meantime I checked with Corporate, and I was told we can’t tell customers to leave the store just because of questionable remarks they might make.”
Bea sighed. “I know that probably won’t satisfy you,” she said, “but that’s the way it is.”
“You bet it doesn’t satisfy me,” Rochelle said indignantly. “As I understand it, the company is now condoning outside people bringing racial hostility into my workplace.”
“That’s not it at all,” Bea snapped back. “We’re not condoning anything, but our hands are tied. We can’t exist without our customers, and we can’t send them for re-education. And if I were you, I’d be careful about calling this a hostile workplace.”
“You’re not the one being humiliated,” Rochelle said. “I am, and it feels hostile.”
A few weeks later, Rochelle sued for racial discrimination. Did the company get her lawsuit dismissed?
No, a court said Rochelle’s case of racially hostile work environment was strong enough to warrant a trial.
The company said it wasn’t its fault if its customers were prejudiced. It wasn’t in a position to reprimand them.
The court said the company didn’t have to reprimand customers, but it did have to obey the law. And by acquiescing to customers’ prejudice – four times – it was breaking the law by helping them create a racially hostile environment.
Situations like these are tough for front-line supervisors. The situation was even tougher for Bea because she got bad advice from her higher-ups.
But remember this: While you don’t want to lose customers, you also don’t want to get your organization sued. And giving in to illegal customer preferences – about sex, race, national origin, religion, age or disability status – is likely to do just that.
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