Customers are prejudiced – what’s a supervisor to do?

by on November 7, 2011 · 28 Comments POSTED IN: HR Cafe
courtroom-260x173.jpg

“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.”

Condoning bias?
“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?

Management Lesson
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.

Cite: Mutua v. Texas Roadhouse Mgt.Corp., No. 09-4080, D. S.D., 11/10/10.

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28 Comments on This Post

  1. Marie
    November 7, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    i don’t think her law suit was dismissed because management allowed the behavior to continue.

    • Cheryl
      November 7, 2011 - 1:36 pm

      I agree Marie…..it did create a hostle work environment for her….

  2. Marie
    November 7, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    i don’t think her law suit was dismissed because management allowed the behavior to continue.

    • Cheryl
      November 7, 2011 - 1:36 pm

      I agree Marie…..it did create a hostle work environment for her….

  3. Trina
    November 7, 2011 - 1:38 pm

    I think the employee has a case.  Isn’t an employer legally obligated to protect its own employees from 3rd Party harassment & discrimination?

  4. Trina
    November 7, 2011 - 1:38 pm

    I think the employee has a case.  Isn’t an employer legally obligated to protect its own employees from 3rd Party harassment & discrimination?

  5. Kmckay
    November 7, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    I always thought that a hostile work environment is one that has persistent and pervasive inappropriate behavior.  This sounds like one customer who is racially biased. The manager should condemn the customer’s behavior but ifthis is the only customer who behaves in this inappropriate manner and otherwise the workplace is free from discriminatory practices then I do not see violation of rights here.

  6. Kmckay
    November 7, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    I always thought that a hostile work environment is one that has persistent and pervasive inappropriate behavior.  This sounds like one customer who is racially biased. The manager should condemn the customer’s behavior but ifthis is the only customer who behaves in this inappropriate manner and otherwise the workplace is free from discriminatory practices then I do not see violation of rights here.

  7. Ogbruin6
    November 7, 2011 - 2:23 pm

    absolutely, it is a hostile workplace, company did not do enough!

  8. Ogbruin6
    November 7, 2011 - 2:23 pm

    absolutely, it is a hostile workplace, company did not do enough!

  9. MarkB
    November 7, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    In my opinion, the company is hosed as long as it does not take action to remove any racial descrimination from the workplace, regardless of its origin. 

  10. MarkB
    November 7, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    In my opinion, the company is hosed as long as it does not take action to remove any racial descrimination from the workplace, regardless of its origin. 

  11. Shoffman
    November 7, 2011 - 2:33 pm

    The company should not tolerate this, anymore than they would if a customer was sexually harassing its employees.

  12. Shoffman
    November 7, 2011 - 2:33 pm

    The company should not tolerate this, anymore than they would if a customer was sexually harassing its employees.

  13. Grocery Guy
    November 7, 2011 - 2:44 pm

    Tough call. One incident does not equal a hostel environment, however the same person returning over and over may.. As a policy management must deal with the problem. The clerk may have a good shot at winning if it goes to a jury.

  14. Grocery Guy
    November 7, 2011 - 2:44 pm

    Tough call. One incident does not equal a hostel environment, however the same person returning over and over may.. As a policy management must deal with the problem. The clerk may have a good shot at winning if it goes to a jury.

  15. DW
    November 7, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    A company has a duty to protect its employees from those who create a hostile work environment – be they other employees, vendors or customers.  The company knew, or had reason to know, that there was a problem because the case indicates that the supervisor had a prior discussion with the employee about this and they agreed what the company would do if it happened again.  Even “corporate” knew and gave direction to the supervisor.  According to the case, this was the fourth time it happened.  Too bad the company missed its opportunity to show fellow employees and the community that it doesn’t tolerate racism, even if it costs them a few dollars.  My guess is that it’s going to cost them a lot more to settle. 

  16. DW
    November 7, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    A company has a duty to protect its employees from those who create a hostile work environment – be they other employees, vendors or customers.  The company knew, or had reason to know, that there was a problem because the case indicates that the supervisor had a prior discussion with the employee about this and they agreed what the company would do if it happened again.  Even “corporate” knew and gave direction to the supervisor.  According to the case, this was the fourth time it happened.  Too bad the company missed its opportunity to show fellow employees and the community that it doesn’t tolerate racism, even if it costs them a few dollars.  My guess is that it’s going to cost them a lot more to settle. 

  17. SP
    November 7, 2011 - 3:32 pm

    I agree with DW.  This should have been handled immediately; the company has agreed with the bias customer by letting it go 4 times.  There is a reason for a “right to deny service to anyone” by management.  If this customer wants to shop elsewhere, let her.  Any place of business that is following the law will tell her to behave herself or leave.

  18. SP
    November 7, 2011 - 3:32 pm

    I agree with DW.  This should have been handled immediately; the company has agreed with the bias customer by letting it go 4 times.  There is a reason for a “right to deny service to anyone” by management.  If this customer wants to shop elsewhere, let her.  Any place of business that is following the law will tell her to behave herself or leave.

  19. IrvHyatt
    November 7, 2011 - 3:37 pm

    I agree with kmckay, and it is expressed better than I can put it, so I quote: “I always thought that a hostile work environment is one that has persistent and pervasive inappropriate behavior. This sounds like one customer who is racially biased. The manager should condemn the customer’s behavior but ifthis is the only customer who behaves in this inappropriate manner and otherwise the workplace is free from discriminatory practices then I do not see violation of rights here.”  Dealing with the public can always lead to the unexpected, whether from an irate one, or a calm, ignorant one. I have been on the receiving end of this behavior.  While not comfortable, its the cost of being open to the general public. 

    • Iamboomr
      November 8, 2011 - 2:32 pm

      What you are failing to acknowledge is that the company accommodated the customers’ hostile behavior by replacing the black worker with a white worker. This is completely unacceptable. They should have informed the customers that they cannot accomodate any request to change employees. It would then be up to the customer to continue with their business or leave. You are right in stating that the employer cannot control what others will say or do in a public environment but they certainly can control how they as a company will react.

  20. IrvHyatt
    November 7, 2011 - 3:37 pm

    I agree with kmckay, and it is expressed better than I can put it, so I quote: “I always thought that a hostile work environment is one that has persistent and pervasive inappropriate behavior. This sounds like one customer who is racially biased. The manager should condemn the customer’s behavior but ifthis is the only customer who behaves in this inappropriate manner and otherwise the workplace is free from discriminatory practices then I do not see violation of rights here.”  Dealing with the public can always lead to the unexpected, whether from an irate one, or a calm, ignorant one. I have been on the receiving end of this behavior.  While not comfortable, its the cost of being open to the general public. 

    • Iamboomr
      November 8, 2011 - 2:32 pm

      What you are failing to acknowledge is that the company accommodated the customers’ hostile behavior by replacing the black worker with a white worker. This is completely unacceptable. They should have informed the customers that they cannot accomodate any request to change employees. It would then be up to the customer to continue with their business or leave. You are right in stating that the employer cannot control what others will say or do in a public environment but they certainly can control how they as a company will react.

  21. Ht0wn11
    November 7, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    The company whether private or public still must adhere to federal laws and they discrimination in any form is not tolerated as stated in the Civil Rights Acts.
    Race/Color Discrimination & Harassment
    It is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s race or color.
    Harassment can include, for example, racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or color, or the display of racially-offensive symbols. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
    The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer. 

  22. Ht0wn11
    November 7, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    The company whether private or public still must adhere to federal laws and they discrimination in any form is not tolerated as stated in the Civil Rights Acts.
    Race/Color Discrimination & Harassment
    It is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s race or color.
    Harassment can include, for example, racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or color, or the display of racially-offensive symbols. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
    The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer. 

  23. Kmross
    November 7, 2011 - 4:21 pm

    It would not be dismissed. The company did not do everything they could and her manager told her something would be done, thereby agreeing with the employee that the customers’ behavior was unacceptable and contributed to a hostile environment. Further, her manager threatened her with retailiation because she brought the complaint up.

  24. Kmross
    November 7, 2011 - 4:21 pm

    It would not be dismissed. The company did not do everything they could and her manager told her something would be done, thereby agreeing with the employee that the customers’ behavior was unacceptable and contributed to a hostile environment. Further, her manager threatened her with retailiation because she brought the complaint up.

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