Australia: Customers behaving badly – should businesses intervene and how should they respond?

Last Updated: 16 January 2019
Article by Geoff Baldwin

It is an unfortunate reality that there will be times businesses will encounter customers acting inappropriately or misbehaving. How businesses intervene or address such misbehaviour can have an impact on their public image, as was demonstrated by two recent incidents involving airline passengers.

Video of racial abuse on plane circulated on social media

In one incident, Ryanair – an Irish budget airline – made global headlines for all the wrong reasons over its handling of a matter involving a passenger who racially abused an elderly black woman seated beside him.

As is often the case in recent times, the incident was recorded and circulated on social media, clearly showing the white man abusing, cursing and threatening the woman, demanding that she move seats. A cabin crew member then allegedly asked the woman to relocate.

Airline criticised for its handling of incident

Ryanair was subsequently criticised by other passengers, the general public and even politicians over its management of the incident, with people querying why the victim had to move, whether she was offered a formal apology, and why the man was not removed from the flight.

"This racist white man refused to sit next to an elderly black woman on a Ryanair flight. He called her an 'ugly black bastard' and threatened to push her to another seat if she didn't move to another seat. Ryanair – DOES NOTHING!!!" claimed one person.

"OK boycott @Ryanair if they think it's OK for a racist man to abuse an elderly black woman and remain on the plane," said another.

Appropriate action by cabin crew following sexual assault on plane

By contrast, Southwest Airlines in the US managed a sexual assault incident on one of its planes by quickly removing a woman from her seat and taking her away from the man sitting directly behind her, whom she accused of groping her right side, at and around her bra line.

After the woman asked to be moved to another seat, she was ushered to the back of the plane by cabin crew, who also arranged to have police waiting at the airport for the man once the plane landed.

The airline's handling of the incident meant that Southwest Airlines did not suffer the damage to its public image or the barrage of criticism and public condemnation that Ryanair did.

What should Australian businesses do about abusive customers?

In Australia, the laws are quite clear, with all senior people in a business having a "legal obligation to do something".

This is because the Work Health and Safety Act places a duty on the person conducting a business or undertaking, to do with the management and control of workplaces.

Managers have an obligation to ensure everybody's health and safety

What this means is that anybody who is in a management position has a duty under the act to ensure, as far as practicable, the health and safety of everyone legally present in the workplace. This includes people who are not employees, such as customers, contractors, suppliers, agents and couriers.

While workplace health and safety is a state-controlled area in Australia, all states have very similar requirements of employers, with the starting proposition being that there is a duty on the people managing the business to ensure everyone's health and safety. This includes psychological health.

Despite the old Americanism that "the customer is always right", if there is a customer being abusive – as distinct from having a robust complaint – it's not just a matter of the manager of the business having a discretionary judgement call about whether to do anything about it. In fact it is part of their legal obligations.

Legal obligations vs societal expectations

However, there can be a disconnect between societal expectation and what is legally required of a business. For example, in the Ryanair incident, the public criticised the airline for moving the victim away and the staff then attending to the alleged perpetrator of the abusive conduct.

In many instances, it may in fact be simpler, faster and considerably safer to remove the customer or staff member being attacked or victimised from the situation, rather than risk further agitating the aggressor by demanding they leave. It may also help to ensure that commercial interests are not sabotaged in the process.

The difficulty in the real world is that some managers are reluctant to push customers around or ask them to leave, especially if there is a possibility of legal action.

Make sure the response is proportionate to the problem

Any actions or attempts to defuse a volatile situation must be both reasonable and proportionate to the problem, such as asking someone calmly to leave before taking the next step of calling the police.

What is clear is that while businesses do have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of people on their premises, in practice it can be difficult to find a solution that appeases all parties involved, including the public.

Geoff Baldwin
Corporate and commercial
Stacks Champion

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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