How to enforce standards among customer-facing staff

A row involving a waiter who asked for a selfie with Emma Thompson illustrates an important wider point. David Israel and Chris Deeley report

Actress Emma Thompson recently hit the headlines for requesting that a waiter at an upmarket London hotel, who had been suspended for asking to take a selfie with her at the dinner table, should not lose his job. In an embarrassing about-face, Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair was forced to backtrack on its original decision after the two-time Oscar winner revealed her own side of the story. 

With both employer and employee coming out of the episode with egg on their faces, how can customer-facing businesses tackle the problem of staff etiquette and ensure such incidents are avoided in the first place? 

The first port of call will usually be ensuring staff policies and guidelines for interaction with customers are adequate. For the most part, the more detailed these are the better, so employees can be under no illusions about what is expected of them in any given scenario. Instructions may range from the simple – such as punctuality requirements and dress codes – to more elaborate scripts, routines or conduct guidelines applicable to specific situations. 

In-person training may also assist staff to apply the information provided in such policies to a practical context, and enable them to raise queries about specific scenarios they may encounter. Training should be repeated as often as necessary to ensure standards do not become lax, and policies should be kept up to date and circulated as required. 

It is also crucial for any customer-facing business that its employment contracts are fit for purpose. If employee etiquette is a concern, contracts should look to include provisions which cover situations of accidental misstep, as well as deliberate indiscretions such as that of Thompson’s waiter. Contracts should be paired with the detailed policies mentioned above, and should make clear that a breach of those policies may be considered misconduct and dealt with appropriately.

However, caution must be exercised when formulating policies and reacting to breaches of them. One particular area to be mindful of is whether any of the employer’s prescribed behaviours may constitute discrimination – whether direct or indirect – against certain employees. This is especially so where a business has disabled employees, who may find it difficult to behave, communicate or present themselves in certain ways. Employers risk leaving themselves open to claims under the Equality Act 2010 if such employees are disadvantaged by the prescription of certain conduct or disciplined for failing to achieve standards. 

More broadly, dismissing an employee for a minor breach of an etiquette clause could give rise to a claim for unfair dismissal if sacking the employee is outside the range of reasonable responses for an employer regarding their conduct. Needless to say, it will usually be expected for unintentional breaches of customer service policies to be treated more leniently than wilful adverse behaviour. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, businesses should also consider gathering feedback so they can be sure what their customers expect from their interactions with staff and, equally, what factors do not concern them to the same extent. In Thompson’s case, while Brown’s showed admirable dedication to its clientele in jumping to suspend the intruding waiter, by reversing their decision it appears that they jumped the gun and did not fully understand their customers’ expectations. 

Inviting customer feedback, especially where an incident has occurred, should help ensure alignment between the customer’s feelings and the business’s reaction, and will provide valuable information to use as a basis for future amendments to policies and training. Ultimately, the target for businesses in dealing with staff interaction with customers must be to act with both sense and sensibility…

David Israel is a partner and Chris Deeley a trainee solicitor in the leisure and hospitality group at Royds Withy King