Seeing Red

Sometimes the obvious decision isn’t the right decision for the organisation.  It is easy to get focussed on narrow issues, or rush towards a conclusion when a decision seems obvious.

We are all busy and no-one wants to make a big thing of a little decision.   We all need an intelligent friend to nudge us and say “This doesn’t make sense – check it out”  or “Are you so sure about that?”

A customer complained that a waitress deliberately tipped a jug of iced-water into his lap and stormed off.   The waitress had only been employed  for six weeks.  When asked about the incident she agreed that is what she did.  Her line manager was anxious to ‘get rid’ saying she was obviously volatile.

Seems like an open and shut case of gross misconduct – why take any time over this?  What would you do?

We asked our client to go back and have a quiet word with the waitress to find out what made her do what she did.  We discovered:

  • The customer was part of a heavy drinking group who all turned up at lunch time
  • They were making very crude sexual remarks about the girls red hair and its extent
  • She repeatedly asked them to stop, and they just laughed
  • The manager was listed as on duty, but was in fact absent from the site making a long telephone call to his girlfriend
  • This waitress was 17 years old, and left on her own in a busy restaurant  with no support

Now, we all know that two wrongs don’t make a right.  It is plain that waitresses shouldn’t throw iced water over customers.

But, the staff handbook said:

  • Customer service  – “If you have a difficult customer, do not try to deal with them yourself, but speak to your manager who will take over from there”.
  • Sexual harassment – “We do not expect you to tolerate inappropriate comments from customers.  Please let your manager know immediately if you experience any problems”.

Would any of this make a difference to your initial decision?


The girl was given a tactfully worded warning not to assault customers, and told firmly to walk off the floor if such an incident recurred (which was never triggered because she knew what to do next time).  She went on to be a very successful Area Manager.

The manager was given a warning  for his failure to remain on site and his failure to properly support his trainee.  He was also retrained on supervision and equality.

All managers were reminded of the importance of remaining on site during service, and encouraged to properly support their trainees.

The incident was used as a case study in the organisation (with the girl’s consent) to show how sexual harassment by customers needs proper support from managers in the workplace.

And the customer was asked not to return to the premises.

To be continued ……

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
You can follow Annabel on Twitter


Filed under discipline and dismissal, discrimination, performance management

3 responses to “Seeing Red

  1. Pingback: A word to the wise | Employment law in a mad world

  2. Pingback: Open and shut | Employment law in a mad world

  3. Seems a very sensible response. Hopefully she trained her subordinates the same way later.

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