Emily Capewell became famous just before Christmas for a Facebook spat on the Sydney Morning Herald’s page directed at her Jetstar customers. A computer glitch had created numerous delays, and numerous complaints – prompting Ms Capewell to describe them as a ‘bunch of whingers’. The Sydney Morning Herald immediately jumped on it as yet another example of an employee losing their cool in the face of customer adversity. We are familiar with this scenario: where the employee is sanctioned for bringing their employer into disrepute, and presumably for breaking a variety of express and implied contractual duties, codes of conduct, and workplace policies. These employee duties are clear.
But the interesting question in this increasingly common scenario is what is the nature of the employer’s duty to the employee? Exactly how much abuse should a customer service professional be exposed to before an employer assumes responsibility for stepping in. The hackneyed phrase “the customer is always right” may retain some currency when managing relations with customers, but I’m very doubtful it’s an effective policy for the management of employees. Customers are rarely “right”, and in relation to some customer services settings, namely airlines, restaurants, Emergency rooms, their conduct can be positively abusive. At some point, the implied duty to provide a safe system of work for employees must step in to override the supremacy of the customer, and to create positive duties on the employer. We also have the issue of bullying. It has been recognised for some time that employers owe a duty not to bully employees and to proactively prevent employees from bullying each other. It’s only a very small step to recognize this duty extending to the customer conduct which an employer exposes their staff to.
This will be an interesting area of law as it develops, and I’m positive there will be some case law soon.