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What Can I do When Staff Report Sexual Harassment by a Customer?

Updated: a day ago

A store manager recently reached out to me to ask for my advice about what to do about a customer that was sexually harassing several employees at her store by making inappropriate sexual comments towards them when they were serving him at the cash. Sadly, recent statistics suggest that this is a frequent occurrence, particularly in the service industry and is particularly problematic for employees who depend on tips or commissions to make an adequate income.




1. Develop Trusting Relationship With Front Line Staff

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to ensure that the staff you are supervising can work safely. This obligation includes ensuring that staff are not harassed. They need to know that you will have their back and will take swift and effective action against anyone behaving inappropriately in the workplace, including clients. They also need to know the proper procedure for reporting harassment.


2. Identify the Customer Engaging in Harassment


One of the greatest challenges for a manager in a business that deals with many customers can be to identify the harassing customer. Most workplaces have CCTV footage of their public spaces and drive-thrus so if your staff remembers approximately when the customer was there, you can watch the footage to determine the exact time of the transaction with the customer. You then may be able to track the transactions in your database to determine who the customer is. If this doesn’t work you should issue a memo to all staff with a picture of the employee asking them to keep an eye out for the customer and to advise you immediately if they enter the premises.


3. Gather Evidence of the Harassment


Ask the offended employee for a written statement of what happened and exactly what was said. If other employees overheard the conversation or witnessed the sexual harassment you can ask them to provide a written witness statement. The more contemporaneous it is the better! You should also save any CCTV footage, audio or video recordings of the incident.


4. Issue a Warning or a No Trespass Notice to Customer in Writing


If you can identify the customer, issue them a written warning or a No Trespass Notice depending on the nature and severity of the offending behaviour. The notice should include a description of the offending behaviour and explain that it made your staff feel unsafe. If it is a No Trespass Notice provide a copy of it to the local police who will respond if the customer fails to comply.


5. Tell Staff about What to Do if Harasser Returns


I was pleased to learn from students I gave a workshop to that their employers (fast food restaurants) have a board for staff on which they post the pictures of customers who have harassed their staff and they are to advise the manager immediately if these people come to the restaurant.


6. Provide Support to Employee Who Experienced Harassment


The news is full of stories about employers who ignore and even ostracize employees who complain about harassment. Don't be one of those!!! This can lead to additional liability for your business and can cause irreversible damage to the employee's mental health and your workplace culture. Instead, congratulate any employee who discloses inappropriate behaviour and check in with them regularly to ensure they are satisfied with how you handled the disclosure. Make sure they are feeling safe and have adequate support from management. You can also use it as a "teaching moment" for managers and staff by debriefing what happened with them.


6. Post a Notice in all Public Spaces Indicating that Abuse of Staff is Not Tolerated


I was waiting in the drive-thru at our local A&W and saw that they had posted a sign explaining that they are short-staffed due to the pandemic and that this can cause a delay in processing orders. The notice asked customers to be understanding, patient and respectful with staff. I loved this approach and found it very effective at reducing my anxiety about waiting longer for my order.



7. Provide Regular Training to Managers and Staff

Every employer who provides a direct service to the public should provide their front-line and management staff with safety training at the onboarding stage and every year. The training should include information about the code of conduct in your workplace and prevent and address sexual and other forms of harassment.


8. Reach out for Help / Legal Advice

If you would like to know more about how to respond to disclosures of sexual harassment or would like some free training on how to prevent and address sexual harassment for managers, staff and/or your board members please contact The Legal Clinic at 613-264-7153 or langana@lao.on.ca.

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