Customer service workers face increasing racism – ‘unimaginable five years ago’
It is important for employers to be prepared in advance for situations where employees may be faced with inappropriate behaviour. Everyone has the right to do their work in a safe and healthy manner, emphasises Erika Kähärä, PAM specialist in working environments.
According to Kähärä, people working in customer service are faced with increasing amounts of racist behaviour from customers.
‘Disturbances and inappropriate treatment have also occurred at store checkouts before, but over the last couple of years, these have taken on racist tones. Just five years ago, this would have been unimaginable,’ Kähärä says.
Earlier this February, an R-kioski shopkeeper of Turkish origin told the Iltalehti evening paper how he was constantly experiencing racism at work. The Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Yle Kioski programme, in turn, recently ran a story about Finnish Ritva, who was called a ‘nigger’ by a customer at a store checkout counter.
‘Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour is becoming more common and these people are not even ashamed of their behaviour. It’s absolutely awful,’ Kähärä says.
Briefing and debriefing are important
Employers have an obligation to ensure health and safety at work, which covers both the threat of violence and any kind of inappropriate treatment. If inappropriate treatment cannot be prevented, Kähärä points out that it is important to be prepared in advance for such situations. This is especially advisable if there are customer service employees who do not look like native Finns.
‘The most important thing for the employer is to define where the limit of service lies: what employees are expected to put up with and when it is acceptable for them to refuse to serve a customer unless their behaviour improves.’
Employers can also instruct other employees to intervene if a co-worker is experiencing racist treatment. People can also agree to switch places at the checkout counter as required and to show support for their workmate.
‘Co-workers can point out to a customer who is behaving inappropriately that they don’t want to see their workmate being insulted.’
If an employee becomes the target of racist behaviour, for example, the employer needs to go through the situation with the employee. According to Kähärä, it might also be a good idea to assign the employee to tasks other than customer service for the rest of that day.
‘It’s the employer’s responsibility to sit down with the employee and talk things through. The sooner this debriefing takes place, the better. It’s advisable for the employer to show that they are on the side of the affected employee.’
If the incident still lingers on the employee’s mind, the employee can be referred to discuss the issue with occupational health care professionals.
Need to face facts
According to Kähärä, Finland used to be regarded as a model country for justice and equality. Finland has been considered exemplary in these respects in many countries.
‘This image of us is now utterly ruined. Now we are drawing negative attention in Europe in terms of these issues,’ explains Kähärä.
Employers would be wise to recognise that the situation has changed and be prepared accordingly. Kähärä emphasises that everyone has the right to do their work in a safe and healthy manner.
‘It’s a fact of life that Finnish workplaces are becoming more multicultural. We must be able to handle this. Employees deserve respect and appropriate behaviour,’ reiterates Kähärä.