Calling on corporate

C.N. Williams, Editor In Chief

The saying goes that the customer is always right. But in reality? It’s rather that management overrides policy to meet the unrealistic desires of a paying client, and do so often at the expense of employees’ mental health and safety.

According to a 2017 post for Mental Health America (MHA), Work Health Survey uncovered that manufacturing, retail, and food service industries ranked in the bottom 10 percent for workplace mental health. The two-year survey launched in 2015 and interviewed over 17,000 employees across 19 industries in the United States.

Mental health struggles? In my retail workplace? It’s more likely than you think.

Scammers and fraudsters are quick to take advantage of lenient or flexible policies, despite how those policies are designed to attract repeat customers by offering what appears to be personalized service or exceptions to rules. As a result, front-line employees must adapt to recognize and, ideally, outsmart these scams.

But even honest customers abuse this leniency.

Customers can become aggressive or obnoxious when denied special treatment, or when confronted with an obstacle they didn’t anticipate. Bad customers are common enough to prompt dozens of articles and blog posts explaining tips and tricks to navigate their behavior safely and diplomatically. Wiki-How’s post, “How To Deal With Aggressive Customers,” is a detailed list of steps, complete with pictures. The post has been viewed more than 120,000 times.

Take hate speech, for instance. Hate speech has no legal definition under U.S. law. According to the American Library Association, hate speech “enjoys substantial protection under the First Amendment,” and it can “only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group.”

Meaning, in short: any customer fully has the right to scream racial or homophobic slurs at any employee, with no repercussions, unless management decides that person has become physically violent or disruptive enough to be removed from the premises.

Because free speech is so heavily protected in the United States, federally mandated protections for employees against abusive customers are out of the question. The responsibility, therefore, must fall on the shoulders of store leaders and managers to protect their employees.

Among Work Health Survey respondents, the MHA post said the most positive reactions were related to workplace culture, not perks or fancy recreational space. “It all comes down to treating employees like they’re human beings worthy of respect,” the post summarized.

Customer service policies enabling bad behavior are a slippery slope. The longer that bad behavior — pitching fits, shouting out employees, resorting to personal attacks or slurs, even becoming physically violent — is tolerated, the worse that behavior will become.

Treating front-line service workers with respect must start with management if customers and consumers using the service industry are ever to respect service workers. Without consistent boundaries protecting employees in the service sector from bad behavior, customers will continue to abuse their free speech rights like privileged children throwing tantrums.

Holding consumers more accountable for their behavior is the only way to change the current climate of worker abuse.

Historically, unions are the most effective tool to guarantee a consistent basis for protections in the workplace. Historically, unions are also something corporations intensely fight against.

For example — a leaked video exposed one of Target’s anti-union employee training video, as originally reported by Salon in 2014.

The article cites the new video, observing, “Workers are warned that ‘this is a very competitive business that we’re in,’ and that ‘If Target faced rigid union contracts like some of our competitors, our ability to serve our guests could suffer dramatically — and with fewer guests, what happens to our team?’”

Wal-Mart and Amazon have similarly been exposed for anti-union employee training, according to articles for and Gizmodo, respectively.

Employers must come to understand that service workers are not robots, and should not be expected to endure continued abuse on top of some of the lowest wages and weakest employment benefits. Employers must understand that if they don’t want unions, they must take responsibility for protecting their front-line employees.

If neither option is amenable, service industry employers should at least have the decency to publicly announce, in no uncertain terms, that they believe minimum-wage, barely-part-time, no-benefit employees — often higher education students saddled collectively with trillions of dollars in school debt and no financial assets — deserve the abuse they receive for the good of the billion-dollar multinational companies they serve.