The customer is always right? Harassment in the workplace

Twice, in my early 20s, I had men come up to me while I was working in customer service roles and comment on my appearance. One, after commenting on my beautiful eyes, asked me about my heritage. I told him, and it never even crossed my mind to tell him to get lost or to mind his own business.

Another time, a man commented that he wanted to be served by ‘the pretty young girl’ not the ‘old woman’. The hypocrisy of the statement was incredible considering that the so-called ‘old woman’ was at least a good fifteen years younger than him. Again, I smiled, played along; said nothing. And beyond feeling uncomfortable, I didn’t see it as a big deal, certainly not anything worth mentioning.

Because ‘the customer is always right’.

Except when they’re not.

As someone working in the service industry, you are trained not to argue with a customer, to maintain a polite and professional facade at all times. It’s bad enough when a customer is being rude, but what happens when they cross a line and start asking personal questions or making personal comments? What happens when they harass the person serving them?

For many girls and women working in the service industry, this is something that they have to put up with all too often and ‘the customer is always right’ mantra is especially damaging.

In an attempt to address this issue of customer-based harassment, amendments were made in 2011 to the Sex Discrimination Act. They included the addition of making it, ‘unlawful for a person to sexually harass another person in the course of seeking, or receiving, goods, services or facilities from that other person.’ This put the responsibility on employers to ‘ensure their staff are safe and free from harassment, even when customers initiate the behaviour.’ Prior to the amendment, the Sex Discrimination Act did not ‘explicitly cover employees or contract workers if they are sexually harassed by customers or clients’.

But changes to the law haven’t necessarily translated into changes in the workplace culture. A study published early this year examined the experience of sexual harassment from customers in the service industry. It indicated that ‘nine per cent of all workplace sexual harassment in Australia is perpetrated by clients or customers.’ This figure is likely to be much higher in the retail sector. Harassment in the retail sector appears to be commonplace, with up to two thirds of female workers in retail experiencing harassment.

Harassment by customers presents slightly different challenges compared to workplace harassment from colleagues or co-workers. This can include a reluctance on the part of the manager to reprimand the customer, not wanting to lose their business. The study on sexual harassment from customers found that ‘many employees saw managing unwanted sexual attention from customers to be part of their job’ and that even when the harassment was reported, the employers were ‘reluctant to confront the issue with customers.’ Managers are putting the customers ahead of the needs of their employees.

However, there have been times when a business has sided with their staff. This was the case when a staff member complained to management about sexual harassment from some tradesmen in a Bunnings store, resulting in the tradesman being banned from the premises. While the staff member was initially concerned when she made her complaint, she said she was both surprised and happy at the outcome, an indication that staff can be left with a positive impression of management if support is forthcoming. However, the surprise of the staff member upon receiving support highlights the fact that this kind of support is not expected or taken for granted. The case shows that decisive action can be taken against customers who participate in harassment when management are willing to take a stand. In fact, the business’s actions also generated a positive response in the wider community.

Women are particularly vulnerable to harassment by clients within the service industry, as it is women who make up the majority of service industry employees. For example, in the Australian retail industry women made up almost 60 percent of the staff in 2015. However, men made up the majority of retail sector management. As a result of this, it may be more difficult for the female victims of workplace harassment to raise this issue with most of their managers.

Ultimately, the only way the issue of harassment from customers will get better is by changing workplace cultures in the service industry, and informing customers that sexual harassment in any form is unacceptable. For this to happen managers need to have the courage to put the needs and safety of their staff first, creating a workplace culture where staff feel comfortable enough to report any incidents of harassment, and confident that they will be supported.

Image: Jason Costanza

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Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.

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