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How business owners can help avoid customer discrimination suits

No business owner wants to be accused of discrimination, as these lawsuits can be costly. They can also damage a business's reputation -- and that of its owners.

Certainly, it's essential to take steps to avoid discrimination against employees. However, if you're a business that depends on customers -- particularly if you and your employees regularly deal with the public -- a discrimination allegation by a customer can be particularly devastating.

The law protects people in certain "protected classes" from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It also protects them from discrimination in businesses and organizations open to the public. Here in Kentucky, public accommodation laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, national origin, and disability."

Business owners are responsible for their employees' actions towards customers, whether they're aware of them or not. That's why it's essential to provide your employees with formal training in which you discuss what discrimination is and what groups have protections under the law and offer examples. Discrimination doesn't have to involve refusing to serve someone or using a slur. It can involve treating them differently -- for example, "keeping an eye" on them as they shop in your store.

Business owners can help prevent discriminatory behavior -- and false allegations -- by having cameras installed in all public areas. They can also make it easy for customers to report instances of alleged discrimination directly to them. If a customer feels that a business owner understood their concern and will take action, they're less likely to take their complaint to a public forum like Yelp or an attorney.

Finally, be sure that you're in compliance with all Americans with Disability Act (ADA) regulations and other laws that mandate reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities. Beyond that, help ensure that people who need a little extra help getting in or around your place of business get that assistance. Besides being the right thing to do, it's also good for business. People in wheelchairs have money to spend and can easily take it elsewhere if they don't feel welcome.

If you're facing a civil lawsuit alleging discrimination, it's essential to seek experienced legal guidance. Even if you feel that it's unwarranted, you need to take the matter seriously. The future of your business could depend on how you handle it.

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