Facing Off—Over Face Masks

Business owners find themselves forced to interpret—and enforce—face mask guidelines. How to handle customers who refuse.

They are the kind of scenarios no service industry wants to see: Customers being told about a policy and fuming about it in their heads. Others being more vocal, complaining to salespeople and managers. And then the few times when it gets outright ugly.

Welcome to the face mask controversy no one wants. As businesses are beginning to open up, they are finding themselves tasked with encouraging customers to take precautions to guard employees and fellow customers. That may mean asking some to wait outside and others to stand in lines six feet apart—steps that draw little opposition. But try requesting everyone to wear a mask, and at least some segment of the customers will become fairly unhappy—and certainly not in a buying mood.

“Encourage” is the operative word for businesses here, as wearing a mask isn’t universally mandated by law. Some states require it, some don’t. That leaves a wide range of customer-facing firms in the awkward role of the enforcer. “Business owners have to balance the competing priorities of health and safety and generating revenue,” says Radhika Papandreou, a senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s North American Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice

As of now, Korn Ferry data shows that as stores reopen, they are being more aggressive with some safety procedures and not as tough with others. Nearly 60% of retailers polled say they are providing hand sanitizer, limiting the number of people in stores, and marking socially safe distances around the stores and in checkout lanes, for instance. But in locations where it is not mandated by the government as a condition of reopening, only 17% are requiring customers to wear face masks, and just 15% are providing face masks to customers to wear voluntarily. Craig Rowley, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Consumer Markets practice, says he expects to see more retailers requiring masks as restrictions lift throughout the summer.

In the meantime, businesses are requiring employees to wear face masks, while also often putting up glass or plastic screens to separate employees at cash registers from customers. Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice, says requiring employees to wear masks but not customers is akin to “looking the other way to not cause a scene.” Moreover, Kaplan says it’s unfair to have employees—untrained in the kind of conflict the new standards are creating—serve as policing agents. “There should be one designated manager or, ideally, a security guard well-trained to address customers about wearing a mask if the business is requiring it,” he says.

For his part, Rowley says the best way to enforce the policy is by stationing someone at the front door to control who enters. Kaplan and Papandreou, meanwhile, say framing face mask precautions around laws and regulations is probably backfiring, since those who are refusing to wear them argue the government is intruding too much. Instead, Kaplan says, businesses can suggest to these customers that it’s the right and respectful thing to do out of concern for others. “It would be great to convert the messaging away from government mandate to social decency,” he says.