Natural Foods Merchandiser

What to do when your customers get too friendly

Most of the time it's subtle. A customer habitually gets in a certain cashier's line, lingers at the register after checkout and engages in personal conversation. Then he asks her for a date. She turns him down, but she doesn't really mean it, he thinks. So he keeps coming through her line, and he tries his luck again. Now she's uncomfortable whenever she sees him in the store.

Sometimes there's a blatant violation of personal boundaries. At one store a customer came up behind a cashier and kissed her on the neck.

Sexual harassment by customers can be an occupational hazard for retail staff when friendly, attentive service gets taken the wrong way. Cashiers are particularly vulnerable because they are tied down to a workstation intentionally placed for maximum public exposure. They can't easily retreat into an "employees only" back room and still perform their jobs.

This is not a problem you can let your staff suffer in silence. As an employer, you have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent or remedy sexual harassment in the workplace, not only by supervisors or peers but also by vendors, contractors, consultants and customers. Having a plan for handling harassment allegations and training your staff how to respond will help you deal with these sticky—and potentially dangerous—situations.

Step 1: Have a policy If you have an anti-harassment policy in your employee handbook, it's simple enough to include a prohibition on harassment by customers and other non-employees who come into the workplace. But unless that policy is backed up with employee knowledge and management action, it's not sufficient in itself.

Step 2: Train your staff At Outpost Natural Foods, a community co-op with three stores in the Milwaukee metro area, all new employees go through a week-long orientation. Director of Store Operations Ed Senger says that as part of the orientation, "We explain our harassment-free workplace so that employees understand what harassment is."

In addition, new employees are trained in how to handle a problem customer. As Senger describes it: "We tell them, ‘Don't take it personally. Don't lose your cool. Be direct.'" Trainers suggest lines for employees to use when the interaction turns overly personal, such as, "I'm not interested in this conversation," or "I'd prefer not to discuss that." But if customers don't take the hint, "We tell employees to use their ‘Get Out of Jail Free' card," Senger explains. "Call a manager, leave the register, and let someone else handle it. We'll stand in for them and figure out what happened later."

Step 3: Train your managers Meanwhile, managers also need training. Every year, all Outpost managers are required to attend a session called "Harassment: What Supervisors Need to Know," run by Senger and Human Relations Manager Kari Mitchell. In groups, managers play roles based on actual experiences at Outpost—including scenarios involving customers—followed by discussion.

A subset of managers receives more specialized training in how to conduct investigations of harassment complaints. According to the store's procedures manual: "Investigators should be able to take accurate notes, be a good listener, follow up on leads and be able to represent Outpost should the claim go to litigation."

One of the cardinal points is to investigate all harassment complaints promptly.

Step 4: Conduct an investigation When an employee brings a complaint of customer harassment to management at Outpost, one of the investigators will interview her or him. A complaint form guides the investigator in asking questions to obtain specific information, such as:

  • What events occurred?
  • Who said what?
  • When did this happen?
  • Were there any witnesses?
  • Have you thought about any potential solutions?
  • Is there anything else you think I should know?

    When conducting an investigation, Senger says, "Typically we find something has been going on for a while. Every time we've had this issue, it turns out I've known the customer. So we start building a case. It helps to have all the facts when you're ready to meet with the customer."

    Step 5: Find a solution Unlike an offending employee, you can't take disciplinary action with a customer. But you can tailor a solution that meets the needs of the employee. Is she willing to wait on the customer in the future as long as he agrees to behave appropriately? Or would she prefer not to have to wait on him again and call the manager on duty to take her place?

    Senger says about half the employees who bring up complaints of customer harassment choose the former course and half choose the latter. If a cashier chooses the option to not wait on the customer again, Senger informs the managers on duty that a particular customer will no longer be checking out with this particular employee.

    When Senger has approached customers after investigating a harassment complaint, in all but one case the customer was surprised that the attention was unwelcome, readily agreed not to continue it and subsequently lived up to that agreement.

    However, Senger relates: "There was one time it didn't work. The man denied the whole thing. I explained what we'd witnessed and told him we'd be observing his behavior from here on. We witnessed some of the same behavior again. We asked him to no longer shop at Outpost, and he complied."

    What if an offending customer refuses to abide by your prohibition? In that case, Senger says, "We'd tell the customer that we consider it trespassing and have him arrested. We've done the same thing with shoplifters."

    Don't delay

    One of the cardinal points of advice from experts in employment law is to investigate all harassment complaints promptly. In Outpost's procedures manual, "prompt" is defined as beginning an investigation within two days of receiving a complaint and concluding it within two weeks.

    It's all too human for storeowners and managers to delay when faced with the sticky issue of confronting a customer, especially a frequent customer whom the manager knows. Yet if you do your homework by carefully training staff and properly investigating, you can ensure safety and dignity for your staff without losing a loyal customer.

    This article is intended as general information and is not a substitute for legal or other professional advice. Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. Contact her at [email protected]

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXX/number 1/p. 16

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