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I work for a grocery store. In my store we have a man who comes in often and demands that people help him. This isn't that bad, but he is also very sexist and racist. He calls all the girls "Baby" when they help him. One time I even corrected him and told him my name was not "Baby." I pointed to my name tag and he still insisted on calling me that.

He also once asked me if I had a boyfriend and then proceeded to ask if my boyfriend was African-American or Caucasian. When I told him what his race was he said but he wasn't a fan of African-Americans. This made me very uncomfortable and the fact that he refused to call me by my name also made me uncomfortable. The women at work hate dealing with him. Can I refuse to help him?

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    This sounds like a legal question that will vary by location, but in general in the U.S. you can refuse service for any reason other than being a member of a protected class (gender, race, religion, etc). Racist/sexist jerk isn't a protected class, so I would ask him to leave (or have your manager do so), and indicate that security/the police will be contacted if he does not. Again, this is not legal advice and isn't necessarily correct for your particular jurisdiction. Is there a reason you haven't gotten management involved? – phoebus Aug 12 '15 at 17:53
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    @phoebus As far as I know (IANAL,) you're generally right as far as what the law says in the U.S., but I would definitely have the manager talk to the person rather than doing so yourself unless your management has explicitly given you permission to do so (in which case OP probably wouldn't have asked this question.) It may be legal to kick the customer out, but it could also be a violation of company policy, so it's probably better to talk to the manager and let them deal with it according to company policy. – reirab Aug 13 '15 at 5:11
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    This scenario sounds almost exactly like the example in the cheesy sexual harassment awareness video that everyone had to watch at my last job. (I'm not calling your scenario cheesy-- the video was cheesy, with terrible actors. Your scenario sounds quite unpleasant, and like a textbook example of a hostile workplace.) – pkaeding Aug 13 '15 at 21:41
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    What country are you in? – A E Aug 14 '15 at 14:02
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    @Lohoris if you want to give a reason for your downvote that's fine. But doing so in such a way that blames the original poster for not knowing how this site works or how best to ask a question who has one post on SE total and then starts an off-topic discussion about how to best to get country information from posters is not appropriate. If you want to ask, "what country?" or downvote, do so in a way that keeps the Workplace professional. – enderland Aug 14 '15 at 15:19
154

Whether you can decline service to a customer is a question for your manager, because quite aside from any location-specific legal concerns, businesses differ in their handling of problem customers. I recommend going as a group since he makes a bunch of you uncomfortable. Either individually or as a group, though, be sure to report this harassment to your manager.

Meanwhile, I recommend a minimalist approach. You've already told him that his questions are unwelcome, but he persists. Miss Manners has an oft-repeated way of handling questions that are none of the asker's business: either ignore the question entirely or ask "why would that concern you?". In the case of a customer (not a peer, friend, or relative) I would modify that to making a statement rather than asking a question, since you don't want to talk to the guy anyway. The main thing is to shut down the conversation; if he doesn't get a rise (or information) out of you, he may lose interest in pestering you.

Here's an example of how this could go:

Him: Hey baby...
You: Don't call me "baby". My name is (name).
Him: Hey baby, how much is two pounds of turkey? (Never mind that there's a large sign in the deli window.)
You: $7.98.
Him: You're a sweet girl baby. Do you have a boyfriend?
You: Would you like two pounds of turkey?
Him: (continues to harass without placing an order)
You: If there's something else I can help you with, just let me know. (Turn away and go back to whatever you were doing.)
Him: (continues to pester you)
You: I'm not going to discuss my personal life with you. If you want that turkey, please let me know.

Once it's clear that he's not going to respond to your attempts to get him to stop calling you "baby", continuing to pursue that is just feeding the troll. If you don't yet know (from your manager) that you're allowed to tell him off, all you can do is to respond only to the business questions and ignore the rest. In a social setting you'd presumably just walk away from him (I sure would), but you don't yet know if that would endanger your job. So do this while waiting to find that out, but do pursue that question with your manager.

  • Great answer! The example you gave reminded me of the "broken record" assertiveness technique, with emphasis on repeating the "two pounds of turkey" request. The only setback with this is that when resistance continues, your requests may lose power every time you have to repeat them. If the requests are repeated too often, it can backfire on the authority of your words. In these cases, it is necessary to have some sanctions on hand. – chridam Nov 20 '15 at 14:35
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    @chridam that's why I recommend turning away and going back to whatever you would have been working on otherwise. If the customer keeps you occupied with his inappropriate behavior, he wins. – Monica Cellio Nov 20 '15 at 14:53
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You should talk to your supervisor. Tell them this man makes you very uncomfortable and what he has done and tell your superior you don't want to help this man. Use the term sexual harassment - that usually gets an employer's attention. If the supervisor says you must then talk to his supervisor. If that does not work you can just refuse to help and see if you get fired.

As for the direct question of "Can I refuse to help him?" Yes you can refuse to help him but if you don't have permission from your supervisor then you could get in trouble or even fired. If the store can refuse to service to this man is another question.

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    If a company won't help you in an uncomfortable situation like this one, it's probably not a company worth working for anyway. – Broots Waymb Aug 12 '15 at 20:40
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    Per US EEOC page Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. – scaaahu Aug 13 '15 at 13:12
  • @scaaahu So? My whole point is this is a problem even if we don't agree on if it is sexual harassment. I said get it on the record as there are legal protections for sexual harassment. I will just delete that paragraph as the last thing I wanted to do is introduce a discussion on if it is sexual harassment or not. It makes the OP uncomfortable. – paparazzo Aug 13 '15 at 13:43
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    @DangerZone - most people don't work for their respective employers because they are "worth working for". They work because they must feed their kids and pay the bills. Those of us who have the luxury to be picky about who we work for shouldn't be so condescending. – Davor Aug 15 '15 at 12:15
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+100

This is something that, unfortunately, is not uncommon in retail. The core advice you're getting from almost everyone is correct: talk to your supervisor.

The following assumes you are in a major retail chain (or one that acts similarly to a major retail chain in terms of its organization). Small stores will of course have much less bureaucracy. This is based on my 5+ years past experience with one major national retail chain, but I imagine it will be similar at any major national chain.

When you do talk to your supervisor, you should:

  • Construct a list of factual statements describing your situation. Specific statements, specific actions, and if possible specific dates/times these took place. For your supervisor to take action, he/she will need this information, in order to effectively convince the folks above (likely in the regional management layer) that this is something significant.
  • If you feel sexually harassed (ie, he makes you feel uncomfortable in a sexual way, such as discussing your personal life despite requests not to), report it as sexual harassment using that phrase specifically. That's because this would then fall under your store's sexual harassment policy, which is typically much more clear and explicit in terms of what must occur after a report is made than if it were not sexual harassment. Racism and sexism is substantially less significant here, though certainly should be mentioned.
  • Be prepared for your supervisor to, at least initially, not take any action. If you're not reporting sexual harassment, it's likely that any action taken would take a significant amount of time to bubble through the administrative chain. You will probably have to give it some time. If that's the case, ask your supervisor periodically - perhaps once a week - for an update on the matter.
  • Encourage the other women in the department to make reports as well - don't depend on the supervisor to collect the reports. More reports makes it more likely upper management will take action.
  • Ask your manager for a copy of your company's sexual harassment policies, and read them. They should lay out both what your company defines as sexual harassment, and what actions should be taken. This may help you better word your complaint, as well as better understand what will likely happen.

More than likely, if you do have a legitimate sexual harassment claim, the chain will act fairly quickly and either ban the man from the store or at least have a sit-down conversation with him the next time he's in the store.

If it's not considered (either by you, or by your management) to be sexual harassment, your supervisor should be able to help you out in the short term by doing a few things.

  • Giving you tools for dealing with this kind of customer (ie, suggestions for how to handle him in a polite but firm manner, so he's less able to harass or intimidate you)
  • Monitor any situation where the customer is in the store, both to gather evidence to present to upper management
  • Take over and help the customer him/herself - any good supervisor should, at minimum, do this in my opinion.

If your supervisor can't really help even to this degree, consider talking to the store's general manager (assuming that's someone separate from this, if not, go up to the district/regional level), or another manager whom you feel comfortable with. They may have no better answers than your supervisor, but you can at least increase your visibility (and that of the other women in your department).

Above all else, remember that this is just a job, and it's not worth being humiliated or belittled. If you don't think your supervisor(s) are able to help you, and you still feel uncomfortable, I would start looking to find another job.

  • Only things I might add is that notifying a supervisor might need to be done twice or more and ideally that the initial time should be done when both Mr.Problem and the supervisor are in the store. If initial complaint is not attended to, next complaints should be written and copies kept. – user2338816 Aug 13 '15 at 3:00
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    Take over and help the customer him/herself - any good supervisor should, at minimum, do this in my opinion. This. I would expect any supervisor to step in when told of this (assuming the customer is still present), both to protect the reporting employee from further harassment, and to hopefully witness the behavior firsthand. If there is a female supervisor (even if she's not your supervisor), I'd attempt to get that supervisor to interact with the customer. – Dan Henderson Aug 13 '15 at 13:27
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As the other answers have stated, you DO need to tell your manager about what is happening. Once you have informed your manager, a very direct and often effective approach to getting someone's attention in a situation like this is to say something like this to him:

You are sexually harassing me. If you continue to do this, I will report you to the police for sexual harassment.

The key here is to use the words "sexual harassment". There are legal implications in those words that should immediately make him take pause. However, if he does continue or protest, call over your manager, and say clearly:

This customer is sexually harassing me. I have repeatedly asked him to stop. I would like to take this further as it makes me feel very unsafe and uncomfortable.

Remember to use the words "sexual harassment". It is very unlikely that it will continue after that point, however if it does, the reason for bringing your manager over is that you have a witness to your initial claim of sexual harassment so you can take it further if required.

One final note: I don't know if your store has security cameras, but if they do, you can also say to the customer:

This store has security footage, so we have evidence of you and your behaviour.

Knowing that his identity has been caught on camera may well discourage and future poor behaviour.

3

I find it completely sad that an answer with more than 100 upvotes basically tells you to be nice to this asshole. Are we in the 1960s? Seriously this is what people think you should do? I am going to give you the exact same advice I have given female employees (and a few male).

First you need to tell this person to shut up in the nicest way possible. Second, I would be as frank as possible to any remarks he makes to you. Third, I would take his remarks to your management and MAKE THEM DEAL WITH IT.

If he calls you "baby" the first time I would follow it with, "Sir my name is ______." The second time, "Sir, I do not appreciate being called baby." The third time, "Sir, I am going to have to ask you to leave if you keep calling me baby."

Then on the racist remarks. The first one - "Sir, our company does not support a racist culture nor should other shoppers in our store hear your remarks. I will have to get our management to talk with you if I hear another remark like that."

And the last thing is to get on the same page as your management. Explain that you are being harrassed at work, that this person (or persons) make you not only feel uncomfortable but unsafe (anyone with a law background will tell you the chances of this guy doing something off the wall are 1000 times better than your average shopper), and that your company must provide a safe environment.

I actually tell my employees this. I would never wait for them to explain this to me. Also your management will either need to get some sort of security or talk with the local police.

Even beyond the harassment to you I find the "kill him with kindness" completely laughable because of how this could affect other customers. What if he is doing it to them? What if they overhear this? Do they want to be involved with a store like this or a store that doesn't do anything about it?

2

Apart from being a harassment-in-the-workplace issue you might phrase this as an employee safety issue.

Once when I was a customer at my local grocery store, someone came in who made even me uncomfortable. I don't know what it was about him, it wasn't that he was homeless, but he seemed like he might be a threat somehow and as if I should keep my eye on him. I suppose one the cashiers or someone saw him too, and pressed a button, because a rather large boy who I had never seen before came out from the private warehouse section of the store (wearing warehouse overalls or an apron) onto the floor: and sort of visibly walked, and looked from a distance, and the guy disappeared and there was no trouble.

So I gathered there was some store procedure in place to respond to potential or emergent threats (apart from or as well as calling for the police).

If he makes you very uncomfortable and refuses to address you by name then perhaps you see him as a potential threat; and a staff safety meeting in which you talk about how to respond (individually and collectively) to any threats to staff might be a good time to bring that up.

Even if nothing else I think you might want to know that the rest of the staff have your back; and sometime when the whole staff is there with the management could be a good time to clarify the store policy.

-2

The company that you are working for doesn't have any duty to serve anyone (there may be exceptions, if it is the only grocery store in a ten mile radius and people cannot get groceries elsewhere, but in general the company can say "no" to anybody).

What you can do depends on what your management tells you. However, your management also has a duty of care towards their employees, so they have to protect you from danger. If you all tell your manager that you feel unsafe with this person, and if you tell your manager that after being told he or she will be personally legally responsible if anything bad happens (which may or may not be true; I don't know, but your manager doesn't know either), that should help.

And don't tell any customers about your boyfriend, unless it is really someone that you can fully trust.

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    Your first paragraph is not true in the US, although in this specific case in the US you probably could deny service. See phoebus' comment on the question. – cdkMoose Aug 12 '15 at 18:40
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    You also can't just throw "legal" information at people and hope they don't know the laws. Especially if you're just making it up... It's upper management's duty to know this kind of stuff. – Broots Waymb Aug 12 '15 at 20:42
  • Do you really think this goes to any kind of upper management? Do you really think management in a retail store knows anything about this? – gnasher729 Aug 12 '15 at 22:31
  • Your first paragraph is not true in the UK either. An invitation to treat — which is what retail sales are — will result in a customer enquiry which must be dealt with (However, Monica's method of restricting interaction to just that invitation to treat is a good one). And telling your manager about a law which you don't really know about either is not good advice. – Andrew Leach Aug 13 '15 at 11:44
  • If the allegation is sexual harassment, retail management at the store most certainly do know something about the law. And upper management (at least district/regional level) would be automatically involved, and likely corporate HR. Regular harassment would make its way up there as well if the store's management chooses to take action – Joe Aug 13 '15 at 12:12

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