When I worked as a pizza delivery driver, I sometimes got mad at customers. I remember once going to a customer’s house, finding out that the customer’s order had been taken incorrectly over the phone, and sitting through a harangue against me and the pizzeria. I handled myself pretty well in that situation, but on another occasion, I lost it.
I was taking a customer’s order over the phone. There were some connections problems, and I couldn’t quite hear her, so I had to ask her a couple different times what she wanted. Then, I repeated her order to her, but I got it wrong. In an irate tone, she said, “No, no, no, this is what I want.” I responded by telling her that I wasn’t an idiot and hanging up on her.
Luckily, I had an understanding boss, who told me that that particular customer could be difficult. My boss called the customer back, took her order, and I went off on a delivery with only an admonition from my boss not to do that again. Lots of other employees have faced censure or termination for similar actions. I’m really glad I didn’t get fired, because that was my favorite pre-bachelor’s-degree job.
Recently, the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University released a study that addresses this very issue: employee retaliation against hostile customers. The authors of the study—Yu-Shan Huang, Julena M. Bonner, Rebecca L. Greenbaum, and Cynthia S. Wang—conducted two experiments, along with literature research, to understand why and when employees engage in customer-directed sabotage. Their findings have implications for customer service brands trying to improve advocacy and loyalty.
First, the study argues that a social intuitionist model of moral judgment governs how people behave. Social intuitionism, according to the study, say that people do not respond to events or situations with deep moral consideration. Instead, they react based on snap moral feelings and judgments. In the face of a hostile customer, such as the one I interacted with during my phone order, employees tend to retaliate without taking a moment to think about their actions.
Customer hostility creates what the authors call “devaluation of targets.” Basically, this means that employees who face customer hostility tend to think less of, or devalue, the person being hostile, the target. This devaluation suppresses the employee’s considered moral views, which leads the employee to feel that the hostile customer is less worthy of moral consideration.
When the employee feels that a customer is less worthy of moral consideration, it becomes easier to act in a way that will harm the customer, such as hanging up on her after an unfriendly farewell. This is what the authors call “customer-directed sabotage.” However, the authors point out that organizations that foster a “high ethical climate” will reduce this kind of employee behavior quite a bit.
Ethical climate, according to the study, is just the overall level of ethical awareness in an organization. If, for example, a company pays little attention to moral considerations (e.g., a manager serves a piece of food you dropped on the floor), then ethical climate for that organization is low. If, on the other hand, the company fosters moral consideration by keeping managers, associates, and employees accountable for their actions through both formal and informal avenues, then that organization’s ethical climate is high. For obvious reasons, when companies have high ethical climates, their cultures will tend to frown upon customer-directed sabotage and employees will be less likely to engage in it.
The findings of the study have many implications for customer service brands. Because employees respond to hostile customers automatically, without careful deliberation, brands have reason to treat their employees with a little more leniency, especially if those employees aren’t aware of what they’re doing. Instead of censuring employee actions immediately, brands should first try to educate their employees about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it (which the Utah State University study enables them to do).
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, brands should strive to create a company culture with a high ethical climate. They need to make sure that their senior-level executives care about operating morally, and those executives need to share this concern with managers, associates, and employees. For employees to take this concern seriously, however, managers and executives actually have to address moral infringements at all levels. A high ethical climate isn’t going to take hold at a company with unethical higher-ups. This means caring about ethical breaches by the C-suite as much as by the frontline.
Though my pizza boss didn’t know any of this, she was acting to reinforce a high ethical climate. By giving me a chance to act correctly in the future, and at the same time seeking to correct the customer’s problem by calling back, she was exemplifying moral consideration in our work environment. A lot of managers could learn from her example.  

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