Pandemic bullies: Unruly customers are making work life miserable for service sector staff

A year ago, I reported on how some customers were taking out their pandemic-related frustrations via terrible treatment of service-sector workers (link here). The situation appears to be worsening. As America and other countries are emerging from pandemic lockdowns, stories of customer abuse of workers in restaurants, commercial airline flights, and other venues are multiplying. These working conditions appear to be contributing to staffing shortages in the retail sector, in particular.

I want my food, NOW

For example, as reported by Neil Vigdor for the New York Times (link here), one Cape Cod, Massachusetts restaurant closed for a day to support workers who were experiencing repeated verbal abuse from entitled customers:

The verbal abuse from rude customers got so bad, the owners of one farm-to-table restaurant on Cape Cod said, that some of their employees cried.

The final indignity came last Thursday, when a man berated one of the restaurant’s young employees for telling him that they could not take his breakfast takeout order because the restaurant had not opened yet, said Brandi Felt Castellano, the co-owner of Apt Cape Cod in Brewster, Mass.

“I never thought it would become this,” she said.

So Ms. Felt Castellano and her spouse, Regina Felt Castellano, who is also the head chef and co-owner, announced on Facebook that the restaurant would close for part of that same day to treat the restaurant’s employees to a “day of kindness.”

…“It’s like abuse,” she said. “It’s things that people are saying that wouldn’t be allowed to be on TV because they would be bleeped. People are always rude to restaurant workers, but this far exceeds anything I’ve seen in my 20 years.”

It’s getting rough up there

Air travel is another venue that is bringing out the worst in some customers. As Andrea Day and Chris DiLella report for CNBC (link here):

They’ve been cursed out, grabbed and even punched in the head.

Flight attendants are now speaking out publicly about the stress of managing increasingly unruly passengers at 35,000 feet, a job that’s gotten more difficult in recent months as passengers return to the skies after months of lockdowns.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced flight attendants to enforce federal rules requiring masks on planes, a mandate that’s touched a political nerve for many Americans and led to a rise in bad behavior onboard.

“It’s definitely out of control,” said flight attendant Matthew Cook, one of two flight attendants who agreed to speak to CNBC on the record as long as their employer wasn’t identified. “I have apprehensions [about] going to work every day. I have a lot of anxiety.”

Most flight attendants have kept quiet about the rise of unruly passengers out of fear of retaliation by their employers.

Some readers may have been around long enough to remember the old saying, the customer is always right. It was a slogan used by retail managers to exhort their employees to make customer satisfaction their highest priority. Okay, so while we’re all appreciative of good service, in truth the customer isn’t always right, and these various instances of bullying, incivility, and violence are proving so. 

Voting with their feet

It appears that many workers are voting with their feet. As Mary Meisenzahl reports for Business Insider (link here), abusive customers are combining with low pay and better opportunities elsewhere to create major staffing shortages in the retail sector:

Some workers are leaving retail and restaurant jobs to get away from low pay and difficult customers, and a growing number of openings in the labor market is making it easier to transition to new careers.

…Hiring has been difficult for many companies, which have reported a lack of candidates for open positions. But retail and restuarants are are also struggling to retain workers who want to leave for new opportunities.

…Another Starbucks employee said after a dangerous and difficult year because of the pandemic, fatigue and treatment are top concerns. “Employees have been fired or people are quitting because we’re so overworked and stressed and abused,” an employee at a Midwest Starbucks told Insider.

A Louisiana barista echoed the same complaints.  The “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well being,” he told Insider.

Research says so, too

Those who question whether customer abuse impacts employee attrition can look at this 2019 study conducted by University of British Columbia researchers that establishes the link. As reported in ScienceDaily (link here):

…In fact, studies have shown that dealing with problematic customers can lead to emotional exhaustion, negative moods, poorer physical health, reduced performance and lower job satisfaction.

But does it also lead to higher employee turnover?

According to a new study led by the UBC Sauder School of Business in collaboration with the UBC-Okanagan Faculty of Management, the University of Illinois, and the University of Queensland in Australia, customer conflict plays a big role when it comes to workers saying “I quit” — and how supervisors manage that conflict helps decide whether employees stay or go.

…Even when controlling for other factors that would lead a worker to throw in the towel — factors including low pay, long hours and poor working conditions — the researchers found a significant link between customer mistreatment and employee quit rates.

“We were able to predict who was going to quit based on their experience of customer mistreatment and emotional exhaustion. You can see it coming,” says UBC Sauder School of Business professor Danielle van Jaarsveld, lead author of the study.

“It starts accumulating, and eventually you hit the wall and say, ‘I’ve got to look for another job.’ Because if you don’t find a way to replenish those emotional resources, they deplete and you’ve got nothing left,” says study co-author and UBC Sauder School of Business professor Daniel Skarlicki.

Kindness, employer support, unions

How can we address this disturbing uptick in worker mistreatment by customers? At least three points come to mind:

First, we can all hold ourselves accountable. Kindness, understanding, and practicing the Golden Rule go a long way, including when we’re at a restaurant or store or in an airplane. And if you see something, say something. Bystander intervention counts for a lot.

Second, employers need to support their workers, like the co-owners of that Cape Cod restaurant did with their day of kindness for their staff. Abusive customers are never in the right.

Third, we need more unions in the service sector to help safeguard workers from mistreatment, regardless of the source. Collective bargaining helps to hold employers accountable for taking care of their employees.

 

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