You know not to tolerate an employee who uses a racial epithet or makes a sexual advance toward a co-worker. You’d involve HR, and use progressive discipline, up to and including termination. It’s not acceptable. But what do you do when a client crosses the line?

This is a serious problem facing every company that deals with the public. Even rude people need technicians to come to their houses or businesses to fix or install equipment.

In some customer service settings, such as call centers, dealing with inappropriate customers can be straightforward. Calls are recorded, so employees can easily escalate unsavory remarks to a supervisor, or simply disconnect the call. The recording serves as proof of what actually occurred.

In the field, it’s not so easy. It’s your tech’s word against the customer’s — and the customer is always right, right?

Absolutely not.

First of all, the company is legally liable if you don’t take proper steps to protect your employees. If an employee complains that a customer made a racial threat or sexually harassed him or her, and you essentially say, “Suck it up,” you can, according to federal law, be held liable for the harassment.

Of course, you shouldn’t tolerate harassment even if it weren’t a legal liability, but given that the law exists, you should know that you’re putting your company at risk if you allow harassment that you’ve been made aware of to continue.

So, how should you respond if your tech encounters a racist or sexist customer? Here are five steps you should take proactively:

  1. Encourage Reporting. Tell your technicians that they should report every incident of sexual or racial harassment from a client. The infraction should be documented and added to the customer’s file.
  2. Management Should Follow Up. Companies are loathed to do this as they don’t want to risk losing a customer. But stop and consider if you’d rather risk your employee’s safety and break the law just to keep a customer? Whenever a tech reports inappropriate behavior, a supervisor should call the customer immediately and address the incident.
  3. Send Backup. If you have a known harasser to whom you still provide service, ask yourself why you continue to do work with this person. If you decide to continue the relationship, don’t send a tech out alone. Send a pair. But don’t give in to the customer’s racism or sexism by changing the gender or race of the techs you send for the job. That simple switch may seem like an easy fix, but you can’t legally factor in customer preference for race or gender when assigning employees.
  4. Allow Techs to Walk Away. Let your techs know how they should address any bad behavior they encounter among a client in the field. For example, they can tell the client, “If you continue to speak to me this way, I will have to leave and you will be charged for the visit.” If the client continues to behave inappropriately, the tech should clean up (if safe to do so) and leave. (Also let your techs know that if they feel threatened, either verbally or physically, to leave immediately and phone the police.)
  5. Fire Repeat Offenders. If you’ve told the customer to clean up her behavior and she persists, it’s time to fire her. No customer is worth dealing with if she’s chronically abusive.

Remember, your employees are far more valuable than a single customer. Let them know you value them and will not tolerate bad behavior from customers, and you’ll create a better work environment for them, which will increase their feeling of safety and overall job satisfaction.

ABOUT Suzanne Lucas

Avatar photoSuzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She now writes about Human Resources and Business for a number of different publications.