Do businesses have the right to refuse service?

In my old business we had a critic.

Everything we did, this guy vocally hated.

Vocal, because he was a journalist.

A journalist for a major newspaper, in fact.

Anyway, one day I lost my rag. “From this second on, I don’t want anyone to serve him” I said at an emergency damage control meeting, after he’d slated us for the bazillionth time.

“You can’t do that” came the reply from my board. “Think of the backlash”.

It poses an interesting question: do businesses have the right to actually refuse to serve someone?

Well, let’s consider a few ramifications.

Legally, provided you’re not discriminating based on age, sex, religion, race etc then yes, a business owner is well within their rights to refuse service.

But from a practical standpoint, it’s not always so clear cut.

Let’s say James comes to your restaurant one day and starts complaining. You tell James to leave and never come back. But the very next day, he’s back in again. In this situation, having already warned him, you’re well within your rights to refuse him service.

However, the issue comes when James invariably starts playing the victim.

“You’re refusing to serve me because I’m gay/black/brown/Dutch/a journalist” (*insert any adjective you want here*)

Now what do you do?

He’s kicking up a stink in your restaurant, playing the victim card, and accusing you of discrimination.

We come back to the same issue I faced – fear of backlash.

Now common sense would tell you that in this situation you calmly explain that your refusal to serve is based on none of these issues, and it’s due to his past behaviour.

However, you’ve got to remember that common sense isn’t common. To all the people sat in your restaurant that have witnessed the commotion, none of whom will have any sense of context or seen what had happened the previous day, like it or not you’re going to be judged.

When they get home that night, you’ll be the topic of conversation.

“You’ll never guess what happened at that restuarant today…” they’ll gossip.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this.

From a legal standpoint any business owner DOES have the power to refuse service to anyone provided it’s not for discriminatory reasons.

However, from a realistic standpoint, I’d argue that except for extreme situations that can easily be proved – the guy beat up your member of staff for example – it becomes very difficult to ban someone and not have them play the victim card, potentially runing your reputation in the process.

Remember, reputation can take years to earn but can be broken in seconds, especially as in our case, the man in question has a huge platform to spread his views (the newspaper he still writes for), or increasingly, a social media platform with thousands of followers.

And that’s where the issue lies.

If it’s something like refusing to serve a rude customer, it might be a controversial take but I’d say just serve them and get them in and out as fast as you can.

Yes, legally you have the right to refuse, but often you’ll find that those that cause the biggest problems also cry the loudest and are the best at getting attention for themselves/playing the victim too.

As far as my personal situation goes, I was eventually persuaded to see sense by my board and we did indeed serve our critic.

It inspired me to actually create a right to refuse service policy in our employee handbook in which I eloquently stated that our company policy was to serve everyone unless there was extreme situations which we could easily prove (CCTV of the guy smashing up a shop, for example).

If in any doubt, just serve. It’s probably not worth the headache.




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