As every good shopkeeper knows, the customer is always right. But, an employment tribunal has ruled that does not apply when the “world’s worst customer” shouts and swears before demanding staff step outside for a fight.
Garry Hardy, a 60-year-old store manager at Topps Tiles, had been serving a “large, loud and aggressive” man demanding a discount after wrongly claiming his order was late in November 2019.
The customer launched into a tirade of foul-mouthed insults before demanding a refund as he became “increasingly aggressive”.
Mr Hardy, who had agreed to process a refund, was invited to join the customer in the car park for what the tribunal in Newcastle upon Tyne heard was an attempt to “escalate the situation into a physical altercation”.
Mr Hardy, who had worked at the Sunderland branch since 2002, was then told he and his staff were incapable of organising an enthusiastically drunken party in a brewery.
At the counter, the man conceded: “Apparently I'm the world's worst customer.”
Not wanting to disagree, both Mr Hardy and a female colleague concurred that he was indeed a “nightmare”.
This triggered yet more swearing and insults as the man insisted he was “shocked” at experiencing the “worst customer service”.
Mr Hardy, who had taken to steadying his nerves with sips from a mug of tea, ordered the man to leave. His gesture towards the door while holding the mug saw a little of the tea “accidentally” splash the customer’s face.
The hearing was told the customer left but told staff helping him to load his purchases into his van that “he had intended to hit the claimant outside, saying: 'If he wasn't such an old man I would have decked him.'”
As a result of his complaint that Mr Hardy had subjected him to a “torrent” of swearing and abuse before throwing tea in his face, the manager was fired.
'Topps Tiles took the view that the customer is always right'
The panel heard two colleagues' accounts of the incident tallied with the recollections of Mr Hardy, who had sued the company for unfair dismissal.
The tribunal sided with Mr Hardy, concluding Topps Tiles paid no regard to the need for Mr Hardy to stand up to a customer to protect himself from unwarranted abuse.
The tribunal heard Mr Hardy suffered from depression, which meant he could have difficulty in managing his anger in response to a trigger such as an angry customer.
They also felt the customer's version of events was not sufficiently challenged by company bosses.
Sharon Langridge, the employment judge, said: "No weight was attached to the possibility the customer was making a false or exaggerated pre-emptive complaint, nor to his own admissions of serious verbal abuse.
"Overall, this appears to be a case where Topps Tiles took the view that the customer is always right, with little or no regard for the need for a store manager to stand up to a customer in order to protect himself or his colleagues from unwarranted abuse."
Mr Hardy also won his claim that his dismissal was discriminatory because of his depression as Topps Tiles did not take it into account when they investigated the incident or when they decided to fire him.
A further hearing will be held to decide how much compensation should be paid.