The Customer Is (Not) Always Right: An Employer's Duty to Protect

by Lewitt Hackman
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Lewitt Hackman

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and in this political climate, it seems as though more people are comfortable voicing those opinions, even if they may offend someone.

Although free speech is a primary pillar of our democratic heritage, in the employment law context, that particular right may cause liability for the employer.

For example: 

Shortly after the November election, an airline passenger was permanently banned from flying Delta Airlines, for his expletive-ridden pro-Trump/anti-Clinton rant before takeoff. Though the flight crew allowed the passenger to continue on his journey, corporate saw the viral video shot by a fellow passenger and clipped the disruptive passenger’s wings:

We must stay true to Delta’s core values and treat one another with dignity and respect. We also must remain committed more than ever to the safety of our customers and our crew members. We will not tolerate anything less.

In another instance, a Michael’s retail customer went on a tirade and claimed she was discriminated against by African American employees when asked if she wanted to purchase a shopping bag. Like Delta Airlines, the retailer’s corporate office also released an official statement:

At Michaels, we do not tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind against our team members or customers. We regret that our customers and team members were affected by this unfortunate incident and are grateful for the leadership of our store team in working to resolve it without further escalation.

Even more recently, a Walmart customer in Texas said to a store employee, “I know you ain’t leaving. I know you’re here to stay. Y’all should go to your own countries and fix up your own countries.” A fellow Walmart employee filmed the incident. The employee being berated by the customer responded that she didn’t want to hear anymore, and then had her supervisor take over. That employee later expressed concern for her job, should she share the video with the media. Walmart has yet to respond officially.

Thus far, xenophobic incidents (in the employment context) in California aren’t as rampant. But if, and when, something similar does occur, here’s what employers should know:

California Employees Protected Under FEHA

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act protects employees from discrimination, retaliation, harassment and bullying. In 2016, several FEHA amendments expanded protections for job applicants and employees. The amendments require employers to implement a complaint procedure where employees can safely report harassment, discrimination or bullying behavior without fear of retaliation. 

FEHA also mandates that employers must take steps to protect its employees from third parties – including patients, clients and customers; vendors; delivery personnel; or others. Employers cannot turn a blind eye when an employee in the workplace is subjected to harassing, discriminatory or disrespectful conduct based on the following real or perceived characteristics: 

  • Race
  • Color
  • Age (over 40)
  • Gender (identity, expression)
  • Sexual orientation
  • National origin, ancestry or citizenship
  • Religion
  • Marital status, domestic partner status
  • Military or veteran status
  • Sex, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, related medical conditions
  • Physical or mental disability or conditions
  • Genetic information

FEHA requires employers notify its employees of complaint procedures. In addition, when a complaint by an employee is submitted, that complaint must be: 

  • Responded to in a timely manner
  • Kept as confidential as possible
  • Investigated impartially and as soon as possible

Employers should also:

  • Document and track the investigation’s progress
  • Provide options for remedial actions and resolutions
  • Conclude the investigation in a timely manner 

Although the “customer is always right,” a customer harassing and discriminating against an employee is wrong. Employers should update all policies and procedures to ensure the actions of third parties, such as the conduct described above, does not lead to costly and unnecessary litigation. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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