Zero tolerance is the only option
I’ve focused recently on the toxic effect that people who behave badly at work have on overall morale and performance. The behaviour of these jerks or assholes should be dealt with to minimise its effect on their immediate colleagues and the longer-term impact on employee engagement.
But this week a distressing news story made me realise that whilst jerks can exist anywhere in the workplace, they can also be present on the customer side.
On a flight from Barcelona to London Stansted on Friday, a white man was filmed shouting at a black woman to get her to move seats (he has a reserved one apparently) while the passengers were boarding the plane. The woman is disabled so can’t move quickly but Mr Jerk seems oblivious to this and seems to think it’s OK to heap a volley of racist abuse at the woman. I’m not going to dignify his appalling behaviour by quoting it here, but you can check it on YouTube (warning: contains offensive language).
What’s just as shocking as his behaviour is the response of the Ryanair crew. They do intervene to get him to calm down – although the action of the passenger in the seat behind is more proactive – but frankly that’s not good enough: he should have been taken off the flight. In fact, towards the end of the video they appear to be more interested in him than the abused woman.
But let’s not blame the crew: they’re under a lot of pressure to get flights off the ground – like any low-cost operator they depend on the schedule and that will have driven their behaviour. The downside is that not only is the whole flight stuck with Toxic Racist for the whole journey, but Ryanair’s reputation takes another knock.
At NextTen we try very hard to love Ryanair: they prove our point that if you have a clear focus on customer outcomes (low cost holidays) then you don’t need magic moments or even a particularly friendly approach to your customers to have a successful business model. But they’re clearly driving this model too hard: strikes by staff have dented profits and it looks like they may be having to cut fares too much to keep customers.
Ryanair have reported the incident to Essex police, although this is definitely too little, too late. With the investigation requiring cooperation with Spanish police it’s possible no prosecution will be made.
The customer is not always right
Sadly, customers behaving badly are a constant for any business and transport is one of the areas where people can find themselves under stress and staff can be on the receiving end of complaints about late running, overcrowding or any of the things likely to affect the business of getting from A to B. But sometimes it’s more subtle: a few years ago I was told a story by one central London bank branch I was visiting about a local business owner who thought it was quite OK to park up on the double yellow line outside while he deposited money. He expected staff to keep an eye out for any traffic wardens and woe betide them if he got a ticket! To me this was quite unacceptable behaviour but as he was a good customer it was tolerated.
These extreme examples show the extent to which companies have a genuine customer focus that is driven by respectful treatment of everybody, customers and employees alike. In the case of the bank, the staff should have felt that if they challenged the customer about his selfish behaviour they would have been backed up by management. In the case of Ryanair, we can infer that other priorities were at play and/or staff might have not felt they would be backed up by management.
Companies should do more to make it clear what customer behaviour they consider to be unacceptable. Of course, most companies – particularly in high-stress areas like transport, healthcare and public services – do, rightly, exhibit the “abuse of our staff will not be tolerated” warnings but more subtle examples need guidance and policies. And staff need to be supported in exercising judgment about action to take when it happens.
But when your customer’s being a racist jerk, don’t think twice, get rid of them. Zero tolerance is the only way to go.