Employees need specialist support when dealing with customer complaints that amount to discrimination and harassment, writes Darren Maw

Recently, UK supermarket Sainsbury’s got into hot water when one of its security guards acted on a customer complaint about two male customers holding hands, which led to a public protest and a high volume of negative publicity. The security guard is likely to have thought he was doing the right thing by following up a customer complaint, but his actions left the organisation wide open to the risk of discrimination and harassment.

This is just one of a number of recent incidents that have highlighted the fact that the customer isn’t always right. Customer service staff may find themselves having to deal with customers who express discriminatory views such as racism, homophobia and xenophobia, so employers need to make sure their employees are able to deal with this, and are well-equipped to enforce the company’s anti-discriminatory ethos and principles.

Employers can become implicated in the behaviour of customers by placating customer complaints and not handling them properly. Legally, it also leaves organisations wide open to complaints of discrimination on the grounds of protected characteristics.

So what steps can customer-facing businesses take to combat complaints raised by customers that could lead to discrimination and harassment? Practically, there is a very straightforward way of dealing with this and it comes down to two things: 

1.    Making sure employees who are customer facing properly understand the organisation’s values and policies on equality, and ensure they commit to them.

2.    Supporting employees in putting those values into practice, even ahead of customer satisfaction.

Employers need robust and clear policies in place to provide guidance on the anti-discriminatory standards of the organisation. Putting those policies into practice with training is vital: an employee may say they would never discriminate against someone, but – as with the Sainsbury’s security guard – may do so involuntarily while trying to appease a customer. 

Interactive training, where real-life scenarios are played out, allows employees to analyse situations and understand what the complaint is, as well as empowering them to push back when the complaint is not valid or is discriminatory. Training that helps staff to recognise these situations, and explain to a customer the standards of the organisation and why the principles of anti-discrimination will override their complaint, is essential.

Having an effective complaints procedure in place may provide employees with a safety net to refer the customer to if they are not satisfied with the response received, but the first step needs to be about empowering staff to have the confidence to push back if complaints form the basis of harassment or discrimination. Most importantly, companies must see through their ethos by supporting those employees who take a stand and put the organisation’s beliefs over customer satisfaction where appropriate. 

Critically, employers need to recognise that when employees push back to customers sometimes it can go wrong. These instances can have repercussions for the organisation, but it is imperative that it stands by and protects its employees.

Organisations pride themselves on standing for equality and diversity; however, if this is abandoned because ‘the customer is always right’ then they are not about that at all. We all need to recognise and take a stand on discrimination of any kind. Employers that value this, rather than pandering to the unreasonable complaints of the customer, should be applauded.

Darren Maw is managing director of HR and employment law firm Vista