If you’ve ever had a job that involves customer service, it’s probably happened to you: the moment when a customer makes it blatantly clear that they’re romantically interested in you, whether it’s with a forward comment, some obvious leering, or a creepy caress of your fingers when you hand them their change.
It’s one of the many reasons why I hate “the customer is always right” as a business motto. The fact of the matter is, customers are humans and, sometimes, humans are the worst.
Which is why I wasn’t too surprised by the findings of a University of Sydney study titled “‘But It’s Your Job To Be Friendly’: Employees Coping With and Contesting Sexual Harassment from Customers in the Service Sector.” Co-authors Professor Rae Cooper and Laura Good interviewed people between the ages of 18 and 25 who worked as bartenders, servers, cashiers, and retail associates, and found that many workers did not report such harassment because “it’s an employee’s job to be friendly.”
“The very nature of the work they are engaged in limits their capacity to speak about sexual harassment. In some cases they felt it wouldn’t be dealt with seriously so there was no point going through the pain,” said Cooper in an interview with ABC News Australia.
Like all forms of workplace sexual harassment, harassment in the service sector places you in the awkward position of having to balance your need to remain professional, and thereby, employed, with protecting yourself and making it clear that these advances are neither wanted or acceptable. Add in worries about being believed or supported by management if you complain or report the behavior with the fact some customers believe that paying for a service or product gives them the right to mistreat service workers with impunity, and it can feel like an impossible situation.
The bad news is that workplace sexism is prevalent in basically every industry imaginable—a fact deftly broken down in a “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” segment titled “Job Fair for Women.”
As per Bee’s usual, the whole thing is good, but this is my favorite bit:
“What am I supposed to do? Stop asking women out because they’re uncomfortable?”
“Yes, you are at work.”
Or, rather, in this case, they are at work. For one thing, I’m pretty sure the customers standing in line are not willing to wait patiently for their turn at the register while another patron attempts to make a love connection. For another, many women in particular feel forced to turn down unwanted advances gingerly, even when they are off the clock.
Add in the fact that 1) they have to keep their cool in order to stay employed and 2) their harasser knows where they work and could potentially try to cause them harm at said workplace in the future, and it should be pretty clear that approaching someone while they’re on the clock isn’t exactly the best way to go.
I’ve worked a long list of retail jobs since high school and have seen workers handle inappropriate advances from customers a few different ways. An assistant manager at a shoe store gave out the store’s number whenever a customer asked for hers. A co-worker would halfheartedly flirt back for some time, before finding an excuse to head to the back or move on to another customer.
At my first job, one of my managers would step in whenever he realized a customer was making us uncomfortable. He once pretended to be my father to make an especially persistent boy back off.
Which is why posts like the open letter Black Acre Brewing Company owner Jordan Gleason wrote to an especially misogynistic customer in April give me a bit of tentative hope. The customer was banned from the Indiana brewery for making the employees feel uncomfortable by doing things like commenting on their bodies. Even after he was ejected, he repeatedly came back to try to reason with Gleason on the grounds that “we’re men, and they’re females,” who were also wearing low-cut shirts and were likely being too “sensitive.”
Gleason’s full letter is worth a read, but he wrote that he told the customer, “These ladies were part of my family, and were human beings that deserved respect. They aren’t objects, and they certainly shouldn’t have to wear different clothes because he can’t be bothered with showing them any decency or respect.”
That’s the kind of stance that I hope most employers take.
They are responsible for their employees’ safety and no one should be allowed to make them feel uncomfortable, regardless of whether or not they’re spending money. The fact that my manager cared about me enough to step in when he realized I was feeling cornered kept me working that fast food job way longer than I would have otherwise. Caring about employees isn’t just the right thing to do, but it can help to decrease employee turnover.
Outside of my hope that more employers stand up for their workers, I’m also hoping that things like findings from that University of Sydney study and open letters like Gleason’s will make more people that it is not a service worker’s job to endure sexual harassment in order to make your shopping or dining experience more “enjoyable.”
The customer is essentially king, which is, frankly, a power dynamic I think everyone should consider before yelling at, being rude to, or heavily flirting with a service worker.
Unless they have a good manager behind them who values their employees’ safety and comfort enough to step in, regardless of whether or not that involves calling out a paying customer’s behavior, they might feel like they are on their own.
You’re placing them in an awkward position, where they have to weigh their own humanity with the fact that they’re currently on the clock.