How Service Employees React to Mistreatment by Rude Customers

service employee

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 (Shao & Skarlicki, 2013) studies the reactions of service employees in a hotel chain to mistreatment by customers. They compared 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. This can ultimately lead to decreased job performance. 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, employees will be faced with the choice of how to respond. Ultimately, anticipating their reactions based on cultural differences can make a huge difference for stress management and customer service.


Shao, R., & Skarlicki, D. P. (2013). Service Employees’ Reactions to Mistreatment by Customers: A Comparison Between North America and East Asia. Personnel Psychology, 67(1), 23–59.