The idea that “the customer is always right” enabled sexual harassers at my retail job
The saying in retail is that “the customer is always right.” In retail, anyone who steps foot into your store — no matter if they intend to make a purchase or not; no matter if it’s Walmart or Bergdorf Goodman —companies instill this philosophy into their employees. They do this primarily to ensure that customers have a great shopping experience — but they also do it to ensure that dollars are coming in and doors are staying open. However, retail managers need to realize that it is also their responsibility to ensure that employees are safe — and that includes being safe from customers that may harass or assault retail workers.
At my first retail job, I was sexually harassed by a returning “customer” on numerous occasions.
Instead of management taking my side and supporting me, I was told to smile, deal with it, and deliver good customer service.
When I began this job, I was ecstatic and unprepared for all that came with the retail environment. I was a happy-go-lucky teenager with no bills who was just excited to make my own money. I worked at a cosmetics store, so coming to work glammed up was part of the job and a way to embody the beauty brand. Unfortunately, for unsuspecting beauty advisors like myself, the job also came with unwanted attention from “customers” who abused the power that the retail environment gave them.
Men flirted with me while they shopped for themselves or for others. Sometimes, they walked into the store to do nothing more than harass me.
Men bothering me at work became the norm. After a while, I mastered the art of politely declining mens’ passes at me and redirected their attention to the store’s sales — but not every person backs down that easily. I learned that firsthand when I encountered a “customer” who frequently came into the store to aggressively hit on female employees. As if being made uncomfortable at work wasn’t enough, our management clearly didn’t care about our complaints.
This man’s unsolicited comments started off simply as “hey beautiful” — and over the weeks, escalated into him saying sexually explicit things to me while I worked with clients.
When I reported this to my manager, I was told to ignore it and continue delivering great customer service.
Store security offered to “keep an eye out” through the security cameras, but I’m pretty sure they were more concerned with keeping an eye on shoplifters. Moreover, security could not keep an eye on me when this particular customer started following me outside of the store during my lunch breaks. Stunned, I reported the harassment to my managers. Still, no action was taken. This person was already making me and my co-workers uncomfortable, and now he was becoming a stalker and a threat to our physical safety.
It wasn’t until the day this customer attempted following me into the stockroom that store personnel made any strides to remove and ban him from the store.
Though I’m grateful that management finally made a move after weeks of complaints, I suspect it was not done completely for my own justice.
A manager in the store witnessed the customer’s attempt to follow me into the stockroom (which has no cameras), so he couldn’t turn a blind eye to the situation. Also, that particular stockroom did not have a functioning keypad lock, which is a major violation that could result in the store being fined. I thank God that I left this situation unharmed, but I’m profoundly disappointed in how my managers approached sexual harassment.
Working in retail, I experienced the lack of support that employees get from management — and the lack of respect that some “customers” have for retail workers. Retail workers are not uneducated people who don’t have the wits to pursue anything else in their lives. They are working people who deserve respect, just like everyone else. While customers are important for business, retail management needs to realize that their employees play a crucial role in keeping doors open as well. It is management’s responsibility to ensure that employees are safe while at work, from anything and anyone.
If you experience inappropriate behavior while at work, no matter the industry, don’t be afraid to speak out time and time again until something is done.