Resist abusive customers or face ethnic discrimination lawsuit?

by on January 5, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Ethnic Discrimination at work from customers

Customers behaving badly
“When I transferred here from San Francisco, I had no idea people were going to be so hostile just because I’m Cambodian,” Fransong “Fran” Praseuth told HR manager Martha Parkins.

“There was an editorial in the town newspaper this morning saying a local bank branch manager didn’t ‘understand the culture’ of her customers,” Fran went on. “The paper means me. I’ve been applying the rules about overdrafts, which the previous manager didn’t do. Now these customers are vilifying me in public.”

“That’s a shame,” Martha said. “As far as applying the rules go, you have the bank’s full support. Although part of being a good customer person is knowing when to bend a rule …”

‘Redneck town’

“I’m not inflexible,” Fran complained. “But I am Asian, and that’s a big strike against me. One guy stopped me on the street and said, ‘This is a redneck town. You should know that.’ I took it as a threat.”

“You’re also a professional and a well-balanced person, and I’m sure you’ll get through this,” Martha said. “If the pressure is too much, I suggest you call one of the counselors in the employee assistance program. I can give you some numbers.”

“I don’t need counseling,” Fran said. “I need support. They’re organizing a public meeting about me on Thursday, and it would help if the bank would send somebody senior to back me up. It’s ethnic discrimination against me because I’m Asian not about the overdraft rules”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that and its not discrimination,” Martha said. “You’re a manager, and managers are paid to take some heat every so often. It would be bad for business if we were seen to be taking sides against the town.”

Fran eventually resigned, and sued the bank for ethnic discrimination in the workplace. Did she win?

The decision

Yes, Fran won.

The court said she was exposed to ethnic discrimination in the workplace. And the bank was liable for failing to do anything about it.

The bank argued that there was no proof it harbored any bias toward Fran. In fact, it had promoted her by giving her the manager’s job.

But that didn’t matter. The court said an employer may be liable for outsiders’ ethnic harassment of its employees – line employees or managers – if it fails to investigate and take steps to stop the harassment. By not doing so, the employer is condoning the illegal conduct.

Customer can be wrong

“The customer is always right” isn’t a bad motto in most situations.

But it shouldn’t blind you to instances where customers violate your employees’ legal rights.

If your company handbook doesn’t already tell employees that they can complain about abusive customer conduct, you may want to consider adding such a section. A clear, non-disruptive procedure for making complaints should be included.

Cite: Galdamez v. Potter, No. 03-35682, 9th Cir., 07/15/05. Fictionalized for dramatic effect

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