How Service Employees React to Mistreatment by Rude Customers

Publication: Personnel Psychology
Article: Service Employees’ Reaction to Mistreatment by Customers: A comparison between North America and East Asia
Reviewed by: Anjali Banerjee

Dealing with rude customers is a universal truth to working in service positions. We’ve all been there, standing awkwardly in the checkout lane as a red-faced customer furiously berates an employee for some perceived injustice or inconvenience. Intriguingly, how employees react to this rude behavior might be influenced by cultural values.

Researchers Ruodan Shao and Daniel P. Skarlicki compared “Service Employees’ Reactions to Mistreatment by Customers” in a hotel chain with locations in China and Canada. These countries were chosen due to their discernible cultural differences, especially the disparity between an individualistic and collectivistic focus.

Individualism is a cultural value that is characterized by a more independent focus, emphasizing personal needs, feelings and autonomy. Conversely, collectivistic values focus on prioritizing harmony and group accomplishments.

The researchers theorized that being berated or otherwise mistreated by customers is stressful to employees, damaging their self-esteem and self-worth as well as consuming mental resources through mechanisms such as ego depletion.

As a result, employees are faced with a choice: They can either replenish these resources by sabotaging the service being provided (for example, by hanging up on a rude customer), or choose to protect their remaining resources by provide the minimum level of service required.

The study found that this choice is made more predictable based on the cultural context. In Canada’s individualistic culture, employees reacted to mistreatment from customers in a more direct way. In China’s collectivistic culture, employees were more likely to react by retreating from providing top-quality services. Both of these reactions have important impacts on customer service.

So what do we do with this discovery? The study’s findings are especially relevant to companies with global chains. By understanding the important role of cultural values, we can better predict the reactions of employees in different countries to stressful situations.

Furthermore, the researchers provided several solutions to the issue of stress caused by customer mistreatment, including a no-tolerance policy for poor treatment of employees, educating managers about these patterns of reactions, and encouraging a social structure at work to help with employee stress management.

In short, organizations need to remember that customers can be jerks. When they are, your employees will be faced with the choice of how to respond. Ultimately, anticipating their reactions based on cultural differences can make a huge difference in your employees’ stress management and customer service.

The Consequences of Fit Across Cultures

Previous research has demonstrated that fit – the compatibility between an employee and a work environment – tends to lead to better attitudes, better job performance, and lower turnover (Arthur, Bell, Villado, & Doverspike, 2006). However, this research has focused predominantly on populations in North America. Today, companies operate across geographical boundaries in a globalized world of business, and it does not seem prudent to apply results found in North America to countries in Europe and Asia. Therefore, it becomes necessary to understand if fit across cultures predicts work attitudes and job performance across the globe.

For this study, Oh, Guay, Kim, Harold, Lee, Heo, and Shin reviewed 96 studies that had previously been conducted in East Asia, Europe, and North America. First, they found that fit predicts work attitudes – such as organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and intent to quit – as well as job performance across cultures. In taking this result further, the authors then looked at different types of fit, how they may vary across cultures, and how this may influence job performance.

To that end, four types of fit were identified:

  • person-job fit, the compatibility between an employee and their job;
  • person–organization fit, the compatibility between an employee and the organization;
  • person–group fit, compatibility between an employee and their coworkers; and
  • person–supervisor fit, the compatibility between an employee and their direct supervisor.

These types of compatibility were then grouped into two types: impersonal and interpersonal. The compatibility between an employee and their job or organization were categorized as an impersonal type of fit, since they do not concern interpersonal and social aspects of work. The compatibility between an employee and their co-workers or their boss were categorized as an interpersonal type of fit, since they are directly concerned with how well an employee relates to other people in the workplace.

In comparing fit and performance across cultures, impersonal fit had stronger effects in North America and Europe, while interpersonal fit had stronger effects in East Asia. In other words, for Westerners, matching an employee to the right role and organization is most important, while human resource management in East Asian business environments should take special care to build positive teams in which social conflict is kept to a minimum.

Self-efficacy and Job Performance

Is self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to succeed – the result of past performance or a cause of future performance? Research thus far has shown that both perspectives are true: that past performance is a driver of self-efficacy (Kozlowski, Gully, Brown, Salas, Smith, & Nason, 2001) and that self-efficacy is a driver of future performance (Sitzmann & Ely, 2011). Upending large parts of the literature on this topic and resolving this issue of whether self-efficacy is the result of past performance or a cause of future performance, Traci Sitzmann of the University of Colorado at Denver & Gillian Yeo of the University of Western Australia found that self-efficacy is more the result of past performance and less a cause of future performance. In other words, a win in the workplace yesterday will make you feel good about yourself and may lead to a boost in job satisfaction, but it doesn’t increase your chances of succeeding tomorrow. Future job performance and self-efficacy are not as closely linked as was previously though.

For their study, Sitzmann and Yeo reviewed the current literature, a process known as a meta-analysis, and synthesized the results of 38 studies of over 5,000 participants, most of which were college students. The indicators of performance differed among the studies, ranging from job performance tasks like stock prediction scores and air traffic control decision points to golf putting and exams in a statistics class. Overall, the analysis was surprising, because earlier work has tended to conclude that self-efficacy, in itself, led to improved job performance.

Fake Smile at Work? How you do it may determine your job satisfaction

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: A meta-analytic structural model of dispositional affectivity and emotional labor
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

Have you ever given a fake smile to someone at work even though you weren’t feeling happy or very excited to see him? If so, you’ve engaged in a process known as emotional labor in which you manage your emotions in order to act in an appropriate way in a work setting. Maybe you wouldn’t go to such efforts when around friends and family, instead feeling free to express the emotions you actually feel. In a work setting though, it may not be best to show your irritation about missing lunch to your brand new client.

Previous research has divided emotional labor into two categories: surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting refers to expressing the emotion that the situation requires even though it may not be the emotion that you are feeling. For example, you may need to smile and be cheerful when greeting a client even though you feel neither happy nor cheerful. Deep acting also refers to expressing the emotion that the situation requires, but instead of merely faking it, you try to generate the required emotions by thinking of historical events or associations. For example, you may need to smile and be cheerful when greeting a client, and even though you’re feeling tired and grumpy, you generate happiness and cheer by thinking of positive associations or of things that make you happy.

Through a literature review of over 116 samples, the results of this investigation indicate that the type of emotional strategy utilized – surface or deep – affects job performance. Specifically, those who use a surface-emotional-labor strategy are less satisfied with their job and more stressed and exhausted, while those who use a deep-emotional-labor strategy are more satisfied, less stressed, and perform their job better. In explaining this finding, the authors believe that surface emotional strategies have worse affects on job performance because they require more effort in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance between an emotion felt and an emotion expressed. Though this result is important for the job performance of anyone with a client-facing role, it is particularly important for those in the service industry in which customer satisfaction is key.

Building a Positive Work Environment: Acts of Kindness at Work

Publication: Personnel Psychology (August, 2012)
Article: Doing Good at Work Feels Good At Home, But Not Right Away: When and Why Perceived Prosocial Impact Predicts Positive Affect
Reviewed by: Nupur Deshpande

According to researchers Sonnentag & Grant, a positive mood that comes from helping someone is so powerful that it can last till bedtime. Firstly, when you believe that you have helped someone at work you feel good. Then, over the day, you think about it, reflecting on the positive features of the event. This reflection spills over into the rest of your day, leaving you feeling good all day long. Due to our tendency to be more engaged with positive emotions and to detach from negative ones, we improve the positive parts of these memories in our minds, giving them greater power to make us happy. Secondly, helping someone at work creates a sense of progress and achievement (especially in helping professions), because it signals that one is capable of successfully contributing to someone else’s well-being. This perception can carry over to other subsequent tasks. Such knowledge alleviates anxiety and enables employees to feel calm and relaxed. Quite interestingly, researchers found that there is an additional positive effect that occurs at the end of the work day, at bedtime, suggesting the importance of after-work leisure hours to contemplate on one’s day.

There are some clear cut implications of this study. The researchers surmise that, while supervisors can certainly improve their subordinates’ good feelings by acknowledging their contributions, coworkers also play an important role in workplace happiness. Especially on stressful days, coworkers appreciate daily acts of kindness. These behaviors can be brought to light via weekly meetings where heart-warming stories of such acts of kindness are shared among staff members. Another suggestion they provide is creating training programs that focus on helping employees build into their daily schedule a time for reminiscing about good experiences that have happened in the workday. This time would potentially lead employees to cultivate good feelings within themselves that may well last till their head hits the pillow that night.

Dealing with Difficult Customers: address the problem, not the emotion

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: More than happy to help? Customer-focused emotion management strategies
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

For customer service agents job performance is affected by which emotion management strategies they use when dealing with difficult customers. According to research by Little, Kluemper, Nelson, and Ward, problem-focused strategies like addressing a problem’s source, decrease caller’s negative feeling and result in positive customer feelings. On the other hand, emotion-focused strategies like distracting the caller from a problem increases in the intensity of a customer’s negative emotions and a decreases their positive emotions.

In other words, if the customer service representative addresses a problem the customer calls about, the customer has a better experience than if the CSR simply focuses on how the caller is feeling. Further, it was also found that the behavior of the caller affected the behavior of the customer service agent, which in turn influenced the caller’s experience. Customers who expressed negative emotions towards a customer service agent tended to trigger a less effective, more emotion-focused strategy by the customer service agent. In contrast, customers who were more pleasant elicited a problem-focused strategy and tended to have a better experience overall.

This result was found by evaluators who examined 228 recorded-customer-service calls. The evaluators had extensive experience as customer service managers. One evaluator assessed the behavior by the customer; the other analyzed the behavior of the employee. In sum, this result is not only helpful for people who work in the customer service industry, but also for customers seeking help. Calling angry or upset doesn’t often get the best outcome for either party in the exchange.

Whistle While You Look For Work

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: Be happy, don't wait: The role of trait affect in job search
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

Staying positive increases your chances of finding a job, according to a recent study in Personnel Psychology. Feelings of positive affect relate to job outcomes, such as the number of interviews and job offers. Specifically, positivity influence a job seeker’s motivation and procrastination behavior, which in turn influences job-search outcomes. So, with unemployment at nearly 8%, try to stay positive, and hopefully, good things will come your way.

245 graduating college students searching for a full-time job completed one survey in September and a second survey in December during the on-campus recruiting season. Over 50 % of the participants were women, and the average age was 22. For the surveys, the first assessed positive/negative affect, and the second assessed procrastination, motivation, and job-search outcomes.

Job seekers with a positive outlook are, unsurprisingly, more likely to persist and less likely to put off job searching. While a smile and a hopeful viewpoint are not a magic tonic, they do offer a better way to approach the quest for employment.

Do you have any tips for staying positive when you look for work?

Raise employee engagement with volunteerism

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: Win–win–win: The influence of company-sponsored volunteerism programs on employees, NGOs, and business units
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

In this study, learn how strong volunteer programs are a win for the NGO, a win for the employee who volunteers, and a win for the company that sponsors the volunteerism. To measure the actual benefits or drawbacks of company-sponsored volunteerism programs, Caligiuri, Mencin, and Jiang gathered responses from employees, NGO managers, and line managers.

Here’s how each group benefits from volunteerism:

  • Employees, who were from a Fortune 500 company, indicated that corporate volunteerism provides fresh ideas and alternative perspectives they can use at work;
  • For the employee’s business, corporate volunteerism leads to increased employee engagement;
  • For the NGO, corporate volunteerism increases sustainability of the organization and leads to continued involvement by the employee even after volunteer assignment.

Additionally, the study found that some volunteer assignments are more valuable than other. A number of factors can increase the value of the volunteerism program. Volunteer program are valued more when they are international, when volunteers can use their professional skills while volunteering, when volunteers’ get to develop skills that will help in their regular work, when the volunteers believe their projects contribute meaningfully the NGO, and when there are concrete resources to sustain the volunteers’ projects.

Does your company offer volunteer programs? Have you participated? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

Creativity and Firm Performance

The impact of creativity on firm performance depends on the riskiness of a firm’s strategy, the firm’s size, and the ability of the firm’s employees to transform creative ideas into new products and services, according to a study by Yaping Gong, Jing Zhou, & Song Chang. When a company has a risky strategy, creativity leads to decreased firm performance. On the other hand, creativity leads to increased firm performance when the size of the company is small or when a company has a high capacity to transform creative ideas into novel products and services (a.k.a., absorptive capacity).

In their study, Gong, Zhou, & Chang collected data from 148 high-technology firms in China that had 100 or more employees and operated in sectors such as telecommunications and biotechnology. In regard to indicators of creativity, sample items included “[the core knowledge employees, such as engineers] generated novel, but operable work-related ideas.” For firm performance, the firms’ CEOs rated their companies along dimensions such as profit, sales growth, and market share. As rated by the CEOs, items such as “we search for big opportunities, and favor large, bold decisions despite the uncertainty of their outcomes” served as indicators of riskiness orientation. Number of employees served as the measure of firm size, and sample items such as “our [core knowledge employees, such as engineers] can easily implement new products and services” served as indicators of realized absorptive capacity.

Responsibly Irresponsible

Publication: Personnel Psychology (in press)
Article: License to ill: The effects of corporate social responsibility and CEO moral identity on corporate social irresponsibility
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

Imagine that while waiting in line at Starbucks for your tall extra dry half-caff non-fat cappuccino with two Splenda, you notice that the person in front of you drops a dollar. In response, you pick up the dollar, give it back to the person, and give yourself a gold star. The next morning, while waiting for your skinny vanilla latte with no whip, the person again drops a dollar, but instead of returning it, you keep it, since you filled your moral quota for the week the day before. In other words, being morally responsible on Monday gives you license to act immoral on Tuesday. This is what Margaret E. Ormiston of the London Business School & Elaine M. Wong of the University of California at Riverside found, but the venue was Fortune 500 companies instead of coffee shops. Specifically, a firm’s past corporate social responsibility was positively related to future corporate social irresponsibility. Further, the more moral a CEO appears in public, the stronger this relationship is.

In their study, Ormiston & Wong examined 49 companies from the 2002 edition of the Fortune 500, and the data was obtained from a previous study that had examined the relationship between CEO characteristics, management team processes, and firm performance. Kinder, Lydenberg, Domini Inc.’s social ratings scale served as the measure of corporate social responsibility and corporate social irresponsibility. This ratings scale looks at behaviors within the domains of community relations, diversity, employee relations, environment, product, corporate governance, and human rights. Ratings by research assistants based on publicly available information about the CEO’s behavior served as the indicator of moral behavior. The behavior of the CEO was rated according to items such as “Is giving, generous towards others,” “Behaves in a sympathetic and considerate manner,” and “Makes moral judgments; judges self and others in terms of right and wrong.”