How Can Employers Deal with Threatening Customers?

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. September 5, 2023

​Customers who abuse, insult or harass a company's employees can be a nightmare. An employer's options for dealing with them are limited, but managers can help.

"Dealing with a threatening customer or client is a challenge, especially in the modern environment where there is a concern that escalation will lead to actual violence," said David Barron, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor in Houston and Chicago. "Modern society has become decidedly less civil, and in many locations, employees work in fear of not only harassment but violence in the workplace. Employers have a duty to protect employees and should act responsibly, including providing adequate training and security."

Customer threats include such unacceptable conduct as harassment based on a protected category, such as race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age or disability. Or customers may rant about a worker's supposed incompetence. Sometimes a customer has a valid point that managers need to hear. However, many customers are unreasonable or hostile, and some are just plain dangerous. How can employers tell who might pose a real threat? Managerial judgment calls have to be made.

How to Handle Abusive Customers

Barron said that once employees alert their supervisors to a threatening customer, the supervisors should attempt to:

  • Divert the customer to a member of management.
  • Move the altercation away from other customers and attempt to de-escalate the situation.
  • Remove the customer from the workplace if possible.
  • Call security or law enforcement as appropriate.

"Some common mistakes in this area include engaging with the customer and prolonging the confrontation," Barron said. "The goal should be to de-escalate and remove the customer. If that is not immediately possible, assume the worst and call for law enforcement."

Employees must be taught not to engage with the customer or escalate the situation by, for example, arguing or returning threats with threats, said Edward Harold, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in New Orleans.

"Management needs to assess the customer and determine whether it is safe to instruct them to leave or to immediately seek assistance from the authorities," he said. "Threatening violence is a crime, and companies have the absolute right to have an individual removed from their premises if they engage in such behavior."

Mistakes that a company might make when an employee reports that a client or customer is verbally or physically threatening them include dismissing or downplaying the employee's report, as well as inadvertently retaliating against the employee to address the threatening conduct, said Michael Manoukian, an attorney with Hopkins & Carley in San Jose, Calif.

"Threats of any kind cannot be taken lightly," said Stephen Paskoff, president and CEO of Employment Learning Innovations Inc. in Atlanta. "One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to not adequately address an issue that arises or to tell employees to just try to ignore or brush off offensive conduct."

That's partly because threats of violence to an employee can be traumatic, said Gregory Abrams, an attorney with Tucker Ellis in Chicago. "Employers must recognize this potential and, depending on the severity, may have an obligation to afford time off or take other steps."

What If the Customer Is Simply Rude?

Sometimes, customers are merely rude, rather than threatening.

"No customer-facing employee should expect that all customer interactions will be pleasant," Harold said. "Managing a rude and disagreeable individual is a valuable skill. And in a business serving thousands of customers a week, such as a restaurant or retail store, the likelihood of unpleasant interactions is 100 percent."

But that doesn't mean companies shouldn't care about customer mistreatment of workers, he added.

"Allowing a high level of incivility and rudeness toward employees will decrease morale, cause employee turnover and foment a poor reputation among potential employees," Harold said. "Managers should be ready and willing to step into situations when an employee seeks help."

For example, if a customer tells an employee, "You are an idiot," forcing the employee to continue serving the customer will impact the employee's job satisfaction, Harold said. "In this area, training of managers and employees in how to handle these interactions is the best tool employers have," he said.

Take Harassment Seriously

There's a fine line between rude behavior and harassment, and the line can be crossed over time, Manoukian said. "So the company should monitor customers or clients that are rude on an ongoing basis to identify when to intervene to protect a company employee," he added.

"Rudeness based on a protected classification such as race, sex or gender should never be tolerated," Barron said.

Before an incident occurs, make sure employees know that if they ever feel unsafe or harassed at work, including by a client or customer, they should tell their supervisor, HR or another appropriate contact, said Anne Knox Averitt, an attorney with Bradley in Birmingham, Ala.

Once the report is made, the employer should investigate the situation with the same focus it would apply to a claim that an employee harassed a co-worker, she said. Interview the complainant, identify any witnesses and gather surveillance footage or other records of the incident, if there are any.

"Where the bad actor is not our employee, we will have to be thoughtful about next steps to take," Averitt said. If the behavior is egregious, the employer may tell the customer not to return to the establishment.

"If the alleged harasser is the employee of a client, we want to be thoughtful to maintain the client relationship while taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our own employee—and to minimize our own exposure from a liability standpoint," Averitt said. "We may turn over our information to the individual's employer for them to handle on their end. We may ask that the employer ensures that the individual not return to our establishment. Or, depending on the circumstances, we may look at ways we can insulate the complaining employee from interacting with that client again and especially with that individual."

Other options include severing ties with the client, including terminating the client's access to company property; hiring private security; or seeking a temporary or permanent restraining order, Manoukian said.

Employers should not tolerate sexual harassment from any source in the workplace, whether co-worker or customer, Barron said.

"Employees should be trained to report such instances, and management should take appropriate action," he said. "That could include a warning or potentially removing the customer from the workplace."



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