Sexual Harassment By Customers: What to Say

26 Sep

I read through the search terms that bring readers to my site, and the majority of searches on harassment had to do with situations where the customer or guest at work is the harasser, especially when that person is drunk.

I addressed the legal aspects of dealing with workplace harassment (including the employer’s responsibilities) in an earlier post, but I want to give some specific ideas about what you can say and do in the moment if a customer is harassing you at work.

Clearly state that the behavior is unwelcome and inappropriate.

This can be as simple as, “That was really disrespectful and/or inappropriate. Please don’t do/say that again.” Or just, “It’s not ok for you to do/say that to me.”

You can also state that enduring harassment is not part of your job description:

“My job is to serve drinks, not to let you slap me on the ass.”

Stand by what you have said in an assertive (not aggressive) way.

What most women fear is the response they will get from a harasser once they have taken a stance. The key is to stick to a professional tone and keep your emotions on the back burner if possible. Stand tall, make full eye contact (even if it makes you feel very uncomfortable), and speak in a clear, calm voice. It’s natural to feel emotional and stressed in a situation like this, but you want to fake composure until the encounter is over. Remember to take full, even breaths. That slows the stress response.

Potential responses and how to deal with them:

1)      They are embarrassed and they apologize. In this case, I think it is nice to reward their good behavior with a smile and friendly attitude or a “thank you” for the apology.

2)      They are embarrassed and resent you for making them feel uncomfortable so they retaliate with a condescending but “humorous” attitude. Ex: “Oh, she’s feisty. Hey everyone (they often try to draw attention of supporters to feel like big men again), look at this chick. She’s serious. She can’t take a compliment.” In this case I would stand very firm and repeat the initial position, adding a potential consequence. “It’s not a compliment and it’s not funny. I’m sorry you feel embarrassed, but that still does not mean you can treat me with disrespect. I’ve been perfectly professional with you. Do I need to have a male coworker/manager take care of you today? I’ll go arrange that.”

3)      They turn mean and nasty. This is a scary one, but remember that you are relatively safe in a public place. Remember if they hurl slurs like “slut”, “bitch” or “dyke”—it’s not about you. If they use a threatening tone or especially threatening words like, “You think this is bad?” or “Maybe you need to learn how to (fill in the blank that means ‘be submissive to men’),” then you should leave as soon as possible. I would say, “Now you are taking a threatening tone. I’m going to get my manager.” If you feel you are in danger, I would ask the supervisor to call the police.

If they are drunk, the same protocol applies. The important thing to remember with a drunk creeper is that they no longer register subtle hints. You need to be extra clear, sometimes using a very firm voice and often repeating yourself. Drunk people can be dangerous, so keep them just outside of grabbing distance.

Other posts you might find useful: How to Be Polite Without Inviting Unwanted Attention

Does anyone have any tips or tricks they’ve used to deal with this situation? I’d love to hear your comments!

One Response to “Sexual Harassment By Customers: What to Say”

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  1. One-Time Workplace Harassment « - December 28, 2011

    [...] Sexual Harassment By Customers: What To Say [...]

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