The Right to Refuse Service

I know that I’ll probably cause a stir in writing this but here it goes:

The customer is not always right.

I can almost hear the rebuttals, see the heads shaking, and visualize open-mouthed gapes of disbelief. For most people – alright, pretty much all people – working in the customer service industry, this belief in the customer’s all encompassing power to be in the right – no matter what the situation – is an unbreakable tenet. Well, I disagree with it and you should as well. The customer is NOT always right. The Patron who gropes your hostess is not in the right, the Patron who threatens your Security Staff is not in the right, and the Patron who demands entry to your establishment is not in the right. People can be as loud, abusive, and just plain rude as they want. That doesn’t make them right and it doesn’t mean that you and your Staff have to take it.

Now, all of that being said, I am not advocating your Hostess punch a groping Patron (though I would press for sexual assault charges) or your Security Staffers pick up threatening Patrons and heave them bodily out the door. It is up to your Staff to be the bigger person – so to speak – and respond to even the most negative of situations in a professional manner. Which leads us to the concept of Refusing Service.

“We Have The Right To Refuse Service To Anyone”

I can’t think of any business establishments where this sign has not been posted in some iteration. But what does it actually mean? Do you really have the right to refuse service to anyone? Well, yes…and no. Businesses are considered private property, which allows the owners to dictate to whom they will or won’t provide service. However, the majority of businesses are also considered places of “public accommodation” which means that their primary purpose is to serve the public in some way.

How does this affect your bar, restaurant, or club? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” in places of public accommodation. That means you can’t turn someone away on the basis of any of the things listed above. More recently, laws prohibiting the denial of service on the basis of sexual orientation have been passed in many US states.

“Well, heck!” some of you may say, “It doesn’t sound like I can refuse anyone service without getting sued for some sort of discrimination.”

Well, yes…and no. First off, if you are trying to deny service to someone based on their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, you may want to re-examine your business model. And if you are denying service based on these things, you WILL get sued. Second, if you want to refuse service based on more realistic or potentially liability-creating issues, you need to develop a set of rules and guidelines for your Staff to follow and let your Patrons know what they are.

First and foremost, develop a Dress Code. We’ve discussed this in detail in previous posts but long story short, if you make people dress nicely, odds are they won’t misbehave. And if they don’t fit the dress code, they can’t get in the bar. Your refusal of service has just gone from “We’re not going to let you in, just because.” to “I’m sorry we can’t let you in, we follow a strict dress code.” Over-intoxication is another easy out. If your Patron – or potential Patron – is too drunk to speak or walk, they need to go. Or they can’t get in. Boom…service refused.

Some scenarios can lead to future refusal of service. Take for example a group of Patrons who consistently get into fights or harass other Patrons. Management can easily say to these individuals that based on their behavior and your desire to keep your other Patrons safe, they are no longer welcome in your establishment. The same goes for people caught drinking underage or sneaking drinks into the bar or climbing over the wall to get in. If you break the rules, you can’t come back.

It is important to keep in mind that your refusal of service cannot be arbitrary! There must be a reason for you to refuse service and IT MUST BE CONSISTENT. For example, let’s say your Dress Code says “No athletic gear”. You cannot deny entry to a Patron for wearing a basketball jersey and then let in another Patron who is wearing the same basketball jersey but is “a friend of the owner”. Nor can you deny entry to an Asian woman for wearing baggy clothes but then let in an African American woman wearing the same outfit. The rules have to apply equally, to EVERYONE. In addition, you can’t set a policy that may exclude a particular group i.e. no headscarves or skullcaps allowed. This could potentially discriminate against Muslim and Jewish patrons and, in turn, lead to a discrimination lawsuit.

The key is to present your Patrons with options for attendance that put everyone in the same boat of expectations. Dress nicely and act nicely? We’ll welcome you. Dress poorly and act rudely? Please find another establishment. Set a policy, apply it equally to everyone, and deliver your message in a professional manner. That way, when a customer is wrong, you have a viable reason to refuse them service. And always, always, always, explain your reasoning to the Patron. They may not agree, but you’ve shed some light on your rationale and given yourself a foundation to stand on should they argue the policy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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