"I'm afraid we can't hire you because you won't mix well with our customers."
That's what the EEOC alleges a northern Minnesota furniture retailer told a transgender job applicant. It's also the reason that company has agreed to pay a $60,000 settlement. "Title VII does not permit discriminatory employment decisions based on customer preference," says the EEOC.
As one federal court further explained, "It is now widely accepted that a company's desire to cater to the perceived … preferences of its customers is not a defense under Title VII for treating employees differently based on [a protected class]." Avoid the trap of acting on a mistaken belief that customers will only deal with employees that look like them.
In fact, I'll go one step further. If you find yourself in a position of having to face down a discriminatory customer, take a stand. Tell the customer, "We don't treat our employees like that, and if you can't deal, we don't want or need your business." Be the better corporate citizen. It's not just the legal way to act, it's the moral way to act. The customer might be right about a lot of things, but discrimination is not one of them.