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In workplace harassment, the customer isn’t always right

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I worked in retail for several years, and I vividly remember my worst interactions with customers. The woman who thought a shirt was on sale, and threw it in my face when I told her it wasn’t. The couple who yelled a series of four-letter words at me when I told them they couldn’t cut in line on a busy Saturday. The man who persistently asked me out for coffee and then stood in the parking lot every day for a week, waiting for my shift to end.

This was many years ago, and I recall that my coworkers and I saw these interactions as being part of the job. Our managers occasionally intervened, but for the most part we were expected to shake it off and continue with our shift. But how easy is it, really, for workers to “shake off” negative interactions with clients and customers, and what impact can these incidents have in the long run?

A recent study examined the link between depression and sexual harassment in the workplace, and compared how depressive symptoms differed for employees harassed by clients and customers, versus those harassed by colleagues. The study found slightly higher levels of depression in cases of sexual harassment by colleagues, however depression was associated with both types of exposure to sexual harassment. Other studies have shown that sexual harassment at the hands of clients and customers can lead to various negative outcomes, including self-reported stress, headaches, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Obviously, protecting workers from the stress associated with customer harassment is a good thing to do, but it might also be a legal obligation, depending on the jurisdiction. Bill 132 came into effect over a year ago, and accordingly most Ontario employers know about their obligation to protect employees from harassment at the hands of coworkers and supervisors. But many workplace harassment policies and programs fail to include a plan for reporting and dealing with harassment from those members of the public a worker will encounter in the course of his or her job duties.

In a recent webcast, my colleagues Janice Rubin and Cory Boyd reviewed the case law that has arisen since Bill 132 came into effect. One interesting trend is the broad application of the employer’s obligations to create a safe working environment. In York Condominium Corp. No 163 v. Robinson, for example, the Court relied on the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act in finding that a condo corporation was required to protect a staff member from workplace harassment at the hands of a condo owner. This is noteworthy, since the condo owner was not an employee of the corporation, and did not have a working relationship with the individual being harassed. Essentially, Bill 132 has ushered in a more general obligation for Ontario employers to protect their employees’ well-being in the workplace.

Employers in any workplace where staff members have regular contact with the public should be mindful of the negative impact workplace harassment can have, whether that harassment comes from coworkers, supervisors, clients or customers. A comprehensive workplace harassment program should include provisions for reporting, investigating, and preventing all harassment, regardless of the source, so that no employee ever feels that being harassed is “part of the job”.

Michelle Bird

About the Author: Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.