Our Voices

Why the customer is NOT always right

By Jeffrey Siminoff

If you’ve visited Indiana University Health recently, you may have spotted the sign saying, “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space. Your words matter. Your behaviors matter. Our patients and our teams matter. Take a slow, deep breath and make sure your energy is in check before entering.”

Indiana University Health, the largest healthcare provider in its state, is among a number of employers who are recognizing that the well-being, productivity and stability of their teams is dependent not only on how team leaders lead but on how customers, in this case, patients, treat staff. As Pew Research found, most workers who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because of factors such as feeling disrespected at work, low pay and lack of opportunities. Burnout is rampant among healthcare workers, who can’t be easily replaced in the post-Covid environment, and, as the leaders of Indiana University Health correctly realize, they can’t afford to lose the good team members they have. They’re turning away from dated tropes and concluding the customer, or patient, isn’t always right.

Even employers who’ve taken steps to make sure workers are earning competitive wages and have access to opportunities to advance are taking steps to put up a protective wall around their teams—one that goes beyond security systems and extends to their safety, well-being and protection from discrimination and harassment. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association is even distributing a “Please Be Kind Toolkit” for its members, complete with a sign that says, “We ask that you please be kind and patient with our staff. We are experiencing staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions.”

The fact that actions like this are necessary at many places of business may not be surprising in our short-fused, stressed-out times, but they also point to something bigger and more positive — that employers are finally ready to embrace the concept of workplace dignity more comprehensively. Unions have long talked about “dignity” in their negotiations for benefits and pay, and this concept shows up in passing in organizations’ values statements. Workplace dignity has come out of the shadows with more force and intention since the pandemic and expanded to include greater organizational responsibility to deliver a workplace that supports worker safety, wellbeing, trust, belonging and mental health.

That being said, workplace dignity is under-discussed and under-addressed, and leaders are given little guidance about it. Recognizing that, at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights we recently launched a new program to help employers better establish a foundation of dignity for their workplaces and give them the know-how to act on it. Our first-of-its kind Workplace Dignity website provides specific tools and actions for impact, helping leaders inspire change day-to-day and organizations drive change more structurally.

Different voices matter to different workplace dignity issues. And, as it relates to customers, this means matters of trust, safety and other pre-requisites of dignity need to be given life in workplaces across every industry, and all employers need to hear the voices of their workers, especially the most vulnerable. That doesn’t happen by accident.

This isn’t just a feel-good movement. Workers who have “had it” are quitting in droves, and it’s leaving many employers unable to pursue new opportunities or even to keep up with current demand. Understaffing can bring challenges including lost customers, workplace hazards, cratering of morale and ramped-up pressure among remaining staff. Not to mention it is important for team members at any workplace to know that their employer has their back in an environment of division and heightened emotions. You may have seen the video of the PetSmart manager stopping an anti-LGBTQ+ customer from harassing employees about the store’s Pride flag. The reason videos like this go viral is that employees have been waiting for moments like this – for their leaders to stand up for them – for a long time—and often, they never arrived.

Creating a dignity-centered organization takes on additional nuance when you employ team members who work with the public—this means customer service reps, health care workers, restaurant employees, retail workers, teachers and many more. In today’s environment, employers have a heightened responsibility to protect employees—human beings with inherent value and worth—from violations of their dignity and to better support their workers when they happen.

That could mean:

  • posting signs or website and social media notices encouraging patient, considerate and dignity-advancing behavior to staff. For instance, the restaurant Buckeye Roadhouse has a sign on its website saying, “The restaurant industry is struggling to find enough workers so please be kind. You may notice a few less items on the menu, a few less bar stools, or your cocktails may take a couple of extra minutes. Please be patient.”

  • intervening in the moment when customers, guests or other third parties get out-of-line

  • following up with clear support for affected employees and accountability as to third-parties (including vendors) when customer behavior crosses lines

  • offering supportive benefits and employee assistance

  • having open discussions with staff about such matters (such as how to handle them, raise concerns with leaders, learn from them, etc.).

Asking any team member to accept bad behavior in today’s environment just doesn’t work on a human level and on a practical one.

While we all should honor the dignity of workers in workplaces other than our own, many times we don’t. Workers are choosing not to accept this behavior—and neither should their employers or the communities they serve.

Jeffrey Siminoff is the Senior Vice President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Workplace Dignity program. Focusing on the intersection of human rights and the workplace, the program reimagines how people should be valued and treated at work, and equips organizations and their leaders with strategies and tools that allow all workers to truly thrive, no matter the work they do or where they do it.