OAKLAND, Calif. -- A law firm here has filed discrimination charges with the state's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of five Safeway employees who claim they have been harmed by the company's "Superior Customer Service" policy.
The employees -- all women -- allege that the policy forces them to make eye contact with and smile at all customers, a practice they contend has invited unwanted sexual advances and harassment. A spokeswoman for Pleasanton-based Safeway countered that the policy has been misconstrued by the employees and that the company has taken action to protect workers' safety.
The charges, also filed with the California State Department of Fair Employment and Housing, follow an identical complaint the employees' union lodged with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. That complaint, as reported in SN was made in September and is still pending.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union said it wanted workers, particularly women, to have more discretion when it comes to making eye contact with customers. Safeway told SN that employees indeed have that discretion.
"We never maintained any specific guideline in regard to [employees] personal behavior," within the context of the policy, Debra Lambert, spokeswoman for Safeway, told SN. "You can smile with your voice [for example]. You do not have to make eye contact for any specific length of time and...what we've done is continue to clarify this and talk about using good common sense and good judgment."
However, Safeway clerk Amy Kinyon said in her complaint that [the store's policies] "are enforced under the threat of discipline or other adverse employment action...by the use of 'Mystery Shoppers.' These new enforcement practices and policies have seriously aggravated the problem..."
She went on to describe in her charge an incident she said occurred last year when a male customer "...harassed me in the store while I was on night crew. This guy came back and repeatedly asked me out on dates. He also tried to caress or stroke my hair. I was afraid that if I acted rudely to him, which is what I wanted to do, I could get in trouble if a secret shopper was watching."
The other women told similar stories in their charges. One of their lawyers, Margot Rosenberg, told SN that "neither the union nor any of the women who filed the charges disagree with the premise that customers should receive excellent, friendly service. [But] the charging parties feel the Safeway policy strips them of their ability to use their natural defenses to distance themselves from someone acting inappropriately toward them."
Lambert said Safeway is "absolutely" not changing its policy because "we don't see [harassment of employees] as a direct result of our asking our employees to practice good customer service."