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Opinion Sexual harassment in the workplace: When the customer is not always right

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations, currently living in Brantford, Ont.

We're finally having widespread social discussions of sexual assault, harassment and abuse. This is good news, but I must admit that I'm disappointed the conversations seem to be excluding a line of work that forces many women to endure this type of behaviour with a smile: customer service.

Unfortunately, there are far too many people who use the "customer's always right" mentality to put women in the customer service industry in difficult and uncomfortable situations. Having been a shift supervisor at a coffee chain for many years, I can guarantee that it happens with disturbing regularity – and that, often, despite policies that are supposed to shield employees from this abuse, managers and district managers do nothing to stop it.

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One of the worst situations I encountered was what ultimately made me step down from my position. I worked in a store that was almost entirely staffed by young women. We had a regular customer who made all sorts of racist, sexist comments about whoever happened to be working – comments on our body or the way we looked, rude things about our co-workers. While I tried to stop this behaviour when I heard it, I was one of the only members of management who felt comfortable doing so.

When I came in for a shift, one of the baristas told me that this regular customer came back behind the bar and started stroking another barista's hair. She giggled nervously while standing there, frozen, unsure of what to do. No member of the management team stopped it or spoke to him. Eventually he left, but the barista was shaken. I decided that, the next time I saw him, I would speak to him myself.

The next day I did. I told him it was inappropriate to touch the baristas, that it made them uncomfortable and that he was not to come behind the bar. Instead of apologizing, he immediately got angry: I was embarrassing him, he said, and if the barista was uncomfortable she should have said something. His behaviour was everyone's fault but his own. He continued to scream at me, making comments about my body, leaving and coming back multiple times to yell some new insult. There was a room full of customers. No one said a word until after he left for good.

I told both my manager and district manager what happened. I was worried about the prospect of him coming in and causing another scene, or yelling at the barista he seemed to think was free for touching with the purchase of a dark roast. They told me that they could not ban him from the store, but didn't say why.

What was I supposed to do if he came back then? My district manager's response: I should go to the back room and wait until he left. I, the only member of management willing to stand up for the 16- to 28-year-old women on our staff, was supposed to leave them, and the floor I was supposed to be running, because a single customer refused to respect our staff. I had to inconvenience myself and my baristas because the company would not stand behind us when faced with harassment and abuse.

That's when I knew: This awful man's daily two dollars was worth more to the company than the safety and security of my entire store's staff.

That's when I decided to demote myself. I stayed on for another couple of years, but saw numerous other incidents, none of which were addressed by management. Men sometimes walked into the back room to follow their favourite barista or grabbed them when they were out bussing the condiment stand. One nearly jumped over the counter at the cash register to touch a barista simply because he knew it made her uncomfortable. He laughed about it, saying, "It's funny when she goes red." The barista laughed nervously, the way women in customer service always have to do. Though others can recognize the fear and discomfort in their laughter, the men who make these women uncomfortable never notice. To them, this response is not a defence mechanism, but an invitation. After all, the customer is always right.

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Yes, being friendly and welcoming is an expectation when you work in customer service, but that doesn't mean we should be expected to quietly welcome and happily endure harassment. We are being nice because it's literally our job – not because we want you to make sexual comments to us or harass us. We deserve respect and safety, too, even if we're at the bottom of the retail chain, being paid minimum wage. Perhaps especially because we're at the bottom of the retail chain, being paid minimum wage.

Companies may have policies on sexual assault, harassment and discrimination internally, as the law requires them to, but unless they stand behind their staff and hold their customers to the same standard, they will continue to make their staff feel like the prospect of a dollar is always more important than they are. They will continue to enable unacceptable behaviour, staying part of the problem instead of becoming part of the solution.

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