What To Do About Sexual Harassment When The Customer Is Always Right

The customer is always right. I found out about this idea soon after I started working as a hostess, and then moved up to be a cocktail waitress, bartender, and food server. I did this work because the managers offered me the job on the spot, and, I took home quite a bit of tip money as a teenager and during my twenties. During most of the shifts that I worked, men customers engaged in sexist or sexual comments or innuendos. Not once in over 8 years in three different restaurants and bars did I say, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” I wanted a big tip! I also didn’t know what to say, and I certainly didn’t want to tell my managers because I thought it would make them uncomfortable and make me (the employee) look bad. I once mentioned a customer who was touching me too much and my manager said, while rolling his eyes, “What do you want me to do about it?” We received the message that the customer is always right in many ways when management sided with customers, no matter how obnoxious their behaviors.

Most of us have done or will do some kind of service work, which ranges in pay, benefits, tipping practices, expectations, and status. Examples of service work include restaurant server, bartender, flight attendant, and massage therapist. A recent New York Times article describes how workers in jobs where they receive a tip are essentially required to tolerate sexual harassment. The article cites a recent report in which 90% of women restaurant servers reported that they have been sexually harassed. 90%. Service workers are expected to endure behaviors that we might not otherwise allow. Generally, waiters and waitresses are expected to ignore, or even pretend to enjoy sexual jokes and comments from customers. But in reality, these servers would want their sex-loving guests in cock cages rather than endure more of the abuse. In service occupations, the customers are THE source of profit. Managers and supervisors want customers to return and spend money in their establishments. Supervisors ask staff to “grin and bear it” instead of turning away a customer unless he or she is extremely abusive to employees. If 90% of servers have experienced sexual harassment, why would they do this kind of work? Frankly, some people like service work, and some workers enjoy sexualized banter at work. But people also do service work because there is so much of it available and they need to work. However, since much service work is seen as low-skilled, management often perceives workers as dispensable. Employees in our economically insecure times can’t afford to rock the boat: they want to keep their jobs.

What service workers are expected to tolerate increases in workplaces where sexuality is a part of the work itself. Waitresses at Hooters, Twin Peaks, and of course, erotic dance clubs, engage in performances that are sexual. Some servers and dancers must either sign a contract or follow rules listed in a “handbook” that says that they understand that sex is a part of their job. Erotic dance clubs do have strict rules about the conditions under which customers may touch dancers, but studies show that these rules are often not enforced and women themselves do not feel comfortable confronting sexual behaviors that go too far, particularly working class women who work in “rundown” clubs. Other service workers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and harassment based on racism, homophobia, and other forms of inequality even when sex is not a part of their job. As examples, African American women are stereotyped as being hypersexual and thus face sexual harassment in particular gendered and racialized ways. Likewise, lesbians in service work have experienced sexualized stereotypes from heterosexual men that they are “always available” and would love to ride with them on a sex swing with their sexuality and gender.

What can service workers do about sexual harassment from customers? They actually have little recourse. Employment discrimination law in the United States does not cover sexual harassment by non-employees (customers, clients, or patients). Some of my earlier research involved interviews with doctors and nurses. Many of the women I interviewed (and very few men) described patients leering at them, raising their patient gown to expose themselves, or asking for dates. Patients aren’t customers but my study suggested that similar to bartenders, hostesses, or massage therapists, doctors and nurses must deal with sexual harassment from patients as a part of their job. None of these workers have legal protections from sexually harassing clients. Further, employees who are at or near the poverty level are less likely to refuse or confront offensive behaviors from clients or customers. In workplaces in which most of the workers and customers are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, trans, or queer workers might be more likely to stay quiet about offensive sexualized comments from customers because they know that they are more likely to be fired for speaking up—a problem that is heightened in states that have few or no legal protections against sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

All of these examples demonstrate unique forms of harassment that are endured because we prioritize customers’ desires over workers’ human rights. In U.S. culture where the customer is always right, many managers and supervisors do not create environments in which workers feel supported, which is especially problematic since workers of color, women workers, and low-income workers are most likely to be pushed into these low-wage employment opportunities. It is impossible to ask service workers to stand up to sexually harassing customers. They, themselves, cannot stop sexual harassment at work. We need to change our cultural beliefs from prioritizing customer needs to respecting the dignity of service workers.