The customer isn’t always right — especially, if she’s a total racist

2008-11-10 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Chapel Hill.jpg

It’s very well settled law that accommodating a customer’s preference to be serviced by employees of a particular race is, well, racist. A few weeks ago, this situation arose with a Lowe’s store in Virginia. A CBS affiliate reported (here) that a white Lowe’s customer refused to accept a delivery from a black Lowe’s deliveryman. According to the report, the customer specifically asked Lowe’s not to send a black delivery person. The customer told the CBS affiliate that “she had the right to have whatever she wanted and she did not feel bad about making the request for a white driver.”

Unfortunately, the story indicates that the store manager accommodated the customer by sending out a white driver instead. However, after the incident was reported to corporate, the company issued a statement denouncing the “discriminatory delivery request” as “inconsistent with our diversity and inclusion core values.” Lowe’s also terminated the store manager’s employment.

Employers are responsible for taking reasonable steps to maintain a workplace that is free from discrimination and unlawful harassment. Responsible companies have handbooks, policies, and training to help accomplish this. But, just remember that folks like customers, vendors, and the like are part of the workplace too. So, remind your workforce — especially your managers and supervisors — not to tolerate behavior that wouldn’t otherwise be condoned if displayed by an employee.

Image Credit: “2008-11-10 Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse in Chapel Hill” by Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.
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  • Scott

    I don’t think this issue is as simple as you make it sound. What if Lowe’s had refused to accommodate this customer’s reprehensible request, went ahead and sent the African-American deliveryman to her house, and she had berated him with a bunch of violent racist language? Couldn’t there be an argument that Lowe’s would be in breach of its duty to protect its employee from racial harassment?

    What if the issue were gender rather than race? What if a customer says “don’t send a woman. I don’t believe in women being deliverymen,” Lowe’s sent a woman anyway, and the woman got sexually harassed? Wouldn’t Lowe’s be on the hook for allowing its employee to be sexually harassed?

    I am not defending racist customers at all. Nor am I advocating for accommodating customers’ racist requests. All I am saying is that, when faced with a racist (or sexist) customer request, isn’t the employer potentially damned whether it accommodates the request or not? Apart from refusing the customer’s business, what else can the employer do to steer clear of any legal trouble?

    • All good points, Scott. Your final sentence hits the nail on the head. In the case of an individual customer, don’t do business with him/her. For a corporate customer with a racist/sexist employee, elevate the issue above the jerk employee to so that the issue may be addressed by his/her employer. If it goes unremedied, find another customer.

  • Scott

    Thanks, Eric. I agree that solution does work in the Lowe’s scenario (though I have to wonder whether most employers would recognize Title VII and similar laws as effectively compelling them to refuse a customer’s business).

    But what about in another context where that’s not an option? There was a Michigan case last year involving a hospital and some lowlife racist patient who didn’t want an African-American nurse. I cannot remember if the hospital accommodated the patient’s request, but I remember thinking that situation really put the hospital in a bad spot. Accommodate the request and its discrimination. Deny the request and they’re sending the nurse into a potentially dangerous and harassing situation. Presumably, the hospital couldn’t just refuse to do business with the patient the same way Lowe’s could. In such a circumstance, what do you think of advising the hospital to approach the nurse, explain the situation, and ask her how she would like it to be handled? Not perfect, but at least you’re giving her a say.