The vastly different reactions to two incidents of inappropriate behaviour by airline passengers have raised questions on how businesses should address customer misconduct and when, or if, they should intervene.
In an ideal world, all customers would be polite – to staff and to each other – all of the time. Reality, of course, is very different.
Irish budget airline Ryanair has made global headlines this week after a passenger’s abusive, racist tirade against an elderly black woman.
In video circulated on social media, the white man is seen abusing, cursing and threatening the woman seated next to him on the plane, demanding that she move. A cabin crew member then allegedly asked the woman if she would move to another seat.
Other passengers, politicians and the general public have lambasted Ryanair over its handling of the incident, stating that the abusive man should have been moved or even removed from the flight and that the victim of the abuse should at the very least have been offered a formal apology.
“This racist white man refused to sit next to an elderly black woman on a Ryanair flight. He called her an ‘ugly black bastard’ and threatened to push her to another seat if she didn’t move to another seat. Ryanair - DOES NOTHING!!!” complained one person.
“OK boycott @Ryanair if they think it’s OK for a racist man to abuse an elderly black woman and remain on the plane,” added another.
That incident comes at the same time as another on Southwest Airlines in the US. Again on an aircraft, a man is accused of sexually assaulting a female passenger sitting directly in front of him.
In a complaint to police, the woman alleged she felt a hand groping her right side at and around her bra line.
The woman asked cabin crew to be moved to another seat, who ushered her to the back of the aircraft and arranged to have police waiting for the man at the airport once the plane landed.
Notably different in this second incident is that the airline has not attracted the barrage of public criticism that Ryanair is facing.
In Australia, when and how should businesses step in?
Here in Australia, the laws are actually pretty clear, Stacks Law Firm employment law specialist Geoff Baldwin said.
All senior business leaders have a “legal obligation to do something,” Mr Baldwin told My Business.
“The Work Health and Safety Act places a duty on the person conducting a business or undertaking involving the management or control of workplaces.
“Anybody who is in a managerial position… has a duty under the act to ensure the health and safety of, as far as practicable, everyone present in the workplace – including people who aren’t workers.”
Mr Baldwin said this covers anyone and everyone lawfully on the premises – employees, customers, suppliers, agents, couriers and so forth.
And while workplace health and safety is a state-controlled issue, he said all states have very similar requirements on employers.
“The starting proposition is that there is a duty on the people managing the business to ensure everyone’s health and safety – and that obviously includes psychological health,” he said.
“Despite the old Americanism that ‘the customer is always right’… if there is a customer being abusive, as distinct from having a robust [complaint], it’s not just a matter of the manager of the business having some discretionary judgement call about whether they will or will not do anything about it, it’s part of their legal obligation.”
However, Mr Baldwin admitted there can be quite a disconnect between what is legally required of a business and societal expectations.
As in the Ryanair example, the victim was moved away and staff attended to the alleged perpetrator of the abusive conduct.
But Mr Baldwin explained that in many instances, it can be faster, simpler and ultimately safer to remove the customer or staff member being victimised from the situation, rather than risk further agitating the aggressor by demanding they leave.
It may also help to avoid commercial interests being sabotaged in the process.
“The difficulty in the real world is that some managers would be very reluctant to push customers around [or ask them to leave], especially if they expect to get a lot of dollars,” he said.
“So I’m not saying that it’s a dead-easy thing to do – there will be all sorts of fairly understandable reluctance [to reprimand a customer as the way of defusing the situation].”
Any actions or attempts to diffuse such a situation must be “both reasonable and proportionate to the problem”, Mr Baldwin cautioned – such as asking someone calmly to leave before going so far as to call the police.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.