Business Psychology

Article No. 384
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Witnesses to Abuse

Research explores customer reactions to employee abuse.

There's an awkward moment that occurs in the conversations supervisors have with employees when the subject of difficult customers comes up. Difficult customers can be angry, rude, insulting, obstinate, and sometimes aggressive, but the reactions we expect from our people are far different. We want them to remain calm and polite. We want them to continue to try to help these customers and ignore their incivility. We expect them to control their own emotions, but it becomes awkward when our people ask follow-up questions. "You mean I can't react?" "I have to just take their abuse?"

In answering our people, even before we speak, we know they won't like what they hear. We'll talk about the atmosphere in the business and the experience of other customers, but the bottom line is that employees who fire up and return insult for insult are going to be fired.

Sandy Hershcovis from the University of Calgary is interested in workplace aggression and incivility, and she has noted that abusive customers are responsible for a large majority of the incidents that trouble employees, so the problem of abusive customers is huge, and there's not much we can do about it. Hershcovis doesn't believe that repeating "the customer is always right" is going to help, but there is someone else in the room when our people suffer abuse: other customers, and it was these other customers, these witnesses, that Hershcovis investigated in her most recent research.

In one experiment, Hershcovis and her students took over the dining room of a fast food restaurant in the midafternoon of a typical business day when traffic was light. Through the large glass windows, she watched for customers who came in alone. When she spotted one, she and her students took their places and acted out a scene of abuse toward the counter clerk. The customers got a front row seat as next in line to place their orders. The purpose was to watch how they reacted and take note of what they said and did.

Customers reacted with both anger toward the abusive customer and empathy toward the clerk. They limited their expressions of anger to harsh opinions that they kept to themselves or expressed in conversation to the counter clerk after the abusive customer had left. Their expression of empathy took three forms. First, they made supportive, sympathetic comments to the clerk as they placed their orders. Second, they gave high evaluations of the clerk's competence in a customer-satisfaction survey they were asked to complete. Many recommended the clerk for employee-of-the-month. Finally, they significantly increased the amount of money that they left for tips in a tip jar on the counter.

Hershcovis replicated these findings in two subsequent studies, and she also tested what would happen if the clerk reacted to the abusive customer through harsh words of her own. Hershcovis found that if the clerk reacted negatively, all the positive reactions she had observed from the customers who had witnessed the abuse disappeared: the anger toward the abusive customer, the supportive comments, the high evaluations, and the increased tips. They all simply disappeared!

Hershcovis explains that when customers witness abuse by another customer they experience a violation of their sense of justice and feel angry. They also feel empathy for the unjust suffering of another person, and they want to relieve this suffering. However, Hershcovis also noted another outcome of witnessing abuse. Customers were uncomfortable with their experience and were less likely to return to this business. This final finding is important to business owners.

In many cases, our people and our customers find themselves in conflict because of policies we have created and asked our people to implement. Many times, if there is trouble, it's our fault. Expressions of anger and conflict are red flags to alert us to policies that need adjustment.

So, there it is. Difficult customers offer an opportunity for our people to display their skill and earn the accolades of customer witnesses (and maybe increased tips), and they give us an opportunity to adjust policies that will improve the atmosphere in our businesses.

Reference: Hershcovis, M. Sandy and Namita Bhatnagar (2017) When fellow customers behave badly: Witness reactions to employee mistreatment by customers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(11), 1528-1544.

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Keywords: Employee mistreatment, difficult customers
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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