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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

The Customer Isn't Always Right

“What if the person showing bias is a client?”

A law student recently hung around to ask me that question after an orientation I was leading on cultivating an inclusive community.

“When I was a paralegal,” she explained (carefully), “there were some awkward situations. But the customer is supposed to always be right. How do you speak up and be polite at the same time?”

Her question pointed to a set of very real, and complicated, challenges. How can you address bias in a person who—if they respond negatively—could have a negative impact on your career?

Especially if you’re a junior employee, you’re expected to defer to clients. Saying something critical can seem like a violation of the smooth, service-oriented experience you are supposed to maintain.

But if you just ignore the behavior, it might continue, and damage your and others’ work environment.

In sensitive situations like this, strategies to interrupt bias can be more effective than confronting it directly.

For instance, ask a clarifying question. “What did you mean?” is sometimes all it takes to nudge a person’s awareness of something they said without making any direct comment. And even if the person responds defensively, you have prompted a pause. You’ll have signaled to them—and to anyone observing—that the comment was problematic.

Another interrupting strategy is offering a different opinion or perspective. “I think she was being passionate about her point of view, not necessarily angry. I’d be passionate too—it was a powerful idea.”

By the way, these are excellent strategies for bystanders as well. Questions and other perspectives serve as guardrails, marking that a behavior was at a borderline of appropriateness without making an individual feel singled out.

Of course, sometimes bystanders let us down. And the power dynamics of observers can also add to the challenge. What if a partner observes the biased behavior, and says nothing? What’s the responsibility of the firm in this situation?

If you’re an employer, how can you have your team’s back in the case of a client’s bias?

An organizations’ responsibility to protect workers from harassment includes the clients they work with. And, microaggressions are a form of harassment: they are behaviors based on a person’s identity that cause harm. As with sexual harassment, it’s the impact that matters: was the behavior welcomed? That is the legal standard that protects employees against sexual harassment, so why not use it when considering other forms of harassment?

So as risky as it might feel to interrupt bias with a client, don’t ignore their behavior if it causes concern. If you see something, speak up—either to the client or to your employer. Maybe the relationship manager can diplomatically provide feedback when another staff member can’t.

If it continues, it is important for employers to make it clear: we don’t treat our people this way, and we won’t tolerate you doing it either.

And in some cases, the only way to really support your employees is to take the client off your client list.


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