How rude!

Why good leaders can help employees manage rude customers


April 15, 2014

Megan Walsh, PhD student (left) and Dr. Kara Arnold

Megan Walsh, PhD student (left) and
Dr. Kara Arnold are researching ways in which
employees can be resistant to customer incivility.

It turns out that all that may stand between a rude customer and downtrodden employee is simply a good boss.

Dr. Kara Arnold, associate dean of research at Memorial’s Faculty of Business Administration, and Megan Walsh, a first-year PhD in management student, have been looking into the impact of customer incivility on employees in the service industry, and what organizations can do to mitigate the negative health impacts associated with repeated exposure to uncivil behaviour.

Their research, presented at the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada (ASAC) conference in June 2013 and currently being prepared for publication, found that the health and well-being of employees who face recurring uncivil behaviour is significantly improved if they have a transformational leader.

“We discovered that leadership – transformational leadership, specifically – seems to be effective in buffering the stress that comes from customer incivility,” says Ms. Walsh.

Customer incivility is a different concept than harassment, which typically is more aggressive and may include such behaviours as threats, belittling or even physical violence.

“Much of the customer service literature focuses on customer aggression and more overt, hostile behaviours towards employees. But customer incivility is a lower-level type of mistreatment towards customer service employees. Intuitively, you would think that customer service employees would experience that type of harassment much more often than overt types of aggression,” says Ms. Walsh. “It could be a customer rolling their eyes, for example, if you do something they don’t like. Somebody might be muttering something under their breath that you can’t quite hear but you know it’s not nice. Things like that.”

Exposure to these kinds of negative interactions in the workplace is known to negatively impact the health and well-being of employees. It increases feelings of alienation and withdrawal from work activities and can lead to poor job performance, depression, job strain and stress, burnout and exhaustion. From the organizational perspective, this can lead to increased staff turnover, decreased customer service and output, increased absenteeism and increased training costs.

Such environments can also create spiralling health concerns for employees.

“It lends itself to this broader notion that your daily hassles are actually more detrimental to your health than bigger negative events in your life. So getting into a car crash once in your life, for example, might actually be less stressful overall than getting stuck in traffic every single day on your way to work because you’re experiencing these minor stressors over and over again. Customer incivility is thought to operate in a similar way.”

Ms. Walsh and Dr. Arnold focused on factors in their research that may positively impact the relationship between customer incivility and employee well-being – that is, they set out to find ways to help employees be resilient and still enjoy their jobs in the face of customer mistreatment.

They looked at transformational leadership, finding meaning in work and the ability to understand customers’ perspectives. The latter two were found to have a direct impact on overall employee well-being, but not to actually influence the relationship between dealing with rude customers and maintaining employee well-being.

Ms. Walsh says that finding meaning in work and understanding customer perspectives are largely internal processes, which may be more challenging for organizations to influence.

Good leadership, however, can be taught.

“In terms of a practical perspective, our research really gives organizations motivation to train leaders to be transformational and to take on this empowering role to help employees who do experience incivility to reframe how they see the situation and to overcome those barriers,” says Ms. Walsh.

Transformational leaders in particular help employees to see the bigger picture and to understand their role in the overall vision for the organization. They are empathetic to employee needs and encourage creative thinking and problem-solving. They are strong communicators and inspire employees to work beyond their potential.

“It was actually kind of a nice surprise that transformational leadership was found to be effective because that’s something that organizations actually can impact,” says Ms. Walsh. “Transformational leadership has been known to be very effective in a training context, so we can train people to be transformational. It’s not necessarily a personality trait.”

Dr. Arnold and Ms. Walsh hope to publish their paper later this year.

Susan White-MacPherson