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What to do when a customer alleges discrimination

June 10, 2024
Staying calm and following predetermined steps can cool down a potentially volatile situation.

Of all the complaints a customer can make at your shop, ones alleging discrimination on the part of your employees can knock the wind out of you. And unlike a complaint that a repair took too long or cost too much, looking at work orders, repair part shipment tracking, or diagnostic data won't illuminate the situation.

In this new world of social media and ultra-sensitivity, a claim that someone may have been discriminated against due to gender, race, sexuality, or a hundred other possibilities can turn a small mistake—or misunderstanding—into a volatile situation. And ignoring a valid complaint, or acting on an invalid one, are equally unacceptable solutions. 

So what do you do? On our affiliate site Ratchet+Wrench, Nolan O'Hara recently explained some solid steps to keep your wits about you when such a situation arises. 

"As a shop owner, you might have a range of emotions if a customer complains of discrimination at your business," O'Hara wrote. "Obviously, you don’t want your customers to feel mistreated and you might feel defensive as well. And the prospect of potentially dealing with a discrimination lawsuit down the road can be pretty intimidating."

The first step is to take a breath and calmly assess the situation.

“Remain calm. I know [with] a lot of people, their first reaction to something like this is to get very defensive; avoid your instincts to do that,” Ryan Byers, an attorney at Rammelkamp Bradney in Jacksonville, Illinois, told Ratchet+Wrench.

To treat the complaint with the appropriate amount of gravity, you have to become a detective of sorts. Here’s how.

Step 1: Investigate the complaint

It all starts with talking to the customer and getting their side of the story (without being defensive or emotional).

“Not every discrimination complaint is created equal, so much of the process is dictated by the situation,” O’Hara noted. “But in all cases, talk to the customer and take their complaint seriously. Tell them you’ll look into the situation and follow up with them. Be sure you’re true to your word.”

And don’t just take one person’s word for it. Take witness accounts if there are any, including the alleged discriminator. Again, do this with control and composure. If an employee you hired puts your shop in a bad position, you can get mad later. For now, you don’t know what happened unless you have video and audio of the entire interaction, so remain neutral.

“You need more information to be able to get to the bottom of it,” said Allison Harrison, the founder of AHL Law Group in Columbus, Ohio. “And maybe you can do something about it, maybe you can’t. But at least if you’re listening and trying to really dial in on it, it shows that you care.”  

What evidence and testimony you uncover could lead you in all sorts of directions, but the end goal should “be to determine exactly what happened, whether you feel the complaint was founded or unfounded, and you should understand the severity of the complaint being leveled—you need to understand if you’re dealing with illegal discrimination, such as discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation,” O’Hara noted. 

After this, you need to figure out how to make sure you can avoid or mitigate such an incident in the future.

Step 2: Make good with the customer 

The good news is that discrimination allegations typically can be resolved outside of court.

“I think the odds are in favor of it being resolved before there’s formal legal action, and even if there’s a suit filed, the odds are very high it will get settled short of trial,” Byers says. 

Let’s assume the customer complaint was unfounded.

“In that case, you should still be respectful but communicate to the customer that you’ve investigated, you haven’t found improper conduct, and you don’t intend to take further action,” O’Hara advised. 

And what if you did find the complaint had merit? Like with other complaints, you can discount—or completely—cover the repair.

But listening could be all it takes.

“Some people who are upset by a situation will give you a lot more grace, and maybe the situation will fully resolve if they just feel like they’ve been heard, so hear them out in a non-defensive manner,” Byers said.  

Depending on the case, you may need to consider how to craft an apology. As a business leader, you should be able to do this on your own, but software can assist you. At a minimum, spell-check the text to show you put some time and respect into the mea culpa. You can also use free editing software such as Grammarly to make sure you get your point across concisely.

A Large Language Model could also give you a good framework for an apology. You can submit a prompt in ChatGPT, such as “Please write a brief apology letter from a repair shop owner to a customer who complained that an employee was sexist.”

Then you get this response from the AI, which you should then put in your own words:

Dear [Customer's Name],

I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to express my sincere apologies regarding the recent incident you experienced at our repair shop. Your feedback has brought to our attention a matter that deeply concerns us, and I want to assure you that we take it very seriously.

I am truly sorry that you had to encounter such behavior from one of our employees. We have investigated the matter thoroughly, and I want you to know that the conduct you described is completely unacceptable and does not align with the values we uphold at our establishment.

We strive to create a welcoming and respectful environment for all our customers, and it is clear that we fell short of our own standards in this instance. Rest assured, appropriate disciplinary actions will be taken, and additional training will be provided to all staff members to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.

There are caveats to the apology route.

“If you do go this route, it could open you up to legal action,” O’Hara warned.

“Apologies or anything of the sort are information that could be uncovered if the complaint resulted in mediation or a lawsuit. But that isn’t a reason to avoid making things right if you do feel the customer was mistreated, Byers says.  

“If you’re really concerned about that coming back and biting you later, the thing to do is get in touch with your attorney and possibly get them to draw up an agreement that would indicate that, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this for you, whatever the accommodation is, but when we do that, it’s going to be in satisfaction of whatever claims that you think you have,’” Byers continued.  

At that point, you’re already in unlikely territory. Most complaints won’t result in any sort of legal action. But that does remain a possibility. So, when is it time to talk to lawyers? 

Well, that’s also going to depend on the circumstances. If the complaint is alleging illegal discrimination, for example, you should talk to lawyers immediately. But if you’re dealing with a smaller complaint, say a customer felt they were overcharged $20 for repairs, you may not need to get attorneys involved.  

However, if you are worried about the complaint, it never hurts to play it safe and reach out to your lawyer early and often. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

“I don’t think it’s ever too soon. It’s often too late. Just because it gets more expensive, not because they can’t help you,” Harrison says.  

All in all, how you approach a complaint will entirely depend on the situation and what’s being alleged. But as you attempt to deal with the situation, just be clear and direct in your communication with the customer, follow your best judgment to approach the situation, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your attorney.  

Step 3: Prevention methods

Making good with the customer is obviously important to keep the issue contained and ideally retain that business, but next you have to ensure employees know how to avoid repeat occurrences. But how do you use the event as a teachable moment to make the business stronger?

For businesses that have the means, Byers recommended putting your employees through some sort of discrimination or implicit bias training.

“That not only helps with prevention of these types of discrimination complaints, but it also can be something you could point to should the complaint advance to some form of litigation,” O’Hara wrote.

“In a lot of situations where we’re talking about lawsuits, be it a claim for discrimination or really any other type of claim, is a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Byers said.  

This won’t totally eliminate the potential for future complaints or liability but will help if that complaint ends up going to court and can reduce punitive damages.

“If you’ve taken all the right steps and you’ve tried your best, you did training once a month, and every time there was a complaint, you have this rigorous investigation period, they’re not going to have as much of a deterrent penalty,” Harrison said. 

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor-in-chief, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch is the editor-in-chief of Fleet Maintenance, where his mission is to provide maintenance management and technicians with the the latest information on the tools and strategies to keep their fleets' commercial vehicles moving.

He is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the B2B journalism space for more than a decade.

Hitch was previously senior editor for FleetOwner, and covers everything related to trucking and commercial vehicle equipment, including breaking news, the latest trends and best practices. He previously wrote about manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest.

Prior to that he was editor for Kent State University's student magazine, The Burr, and a freelancer for Cleveland Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician, where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).

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