How Angry Customers Affect Employee Performance

Topic(s): conflict, job performance, training
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: When Customers Exhibit Verbal Aggression, Employees Pay Cognitive Costs
Authors: A. Rafaeli, A. Erez, S. Ravid, R. Derfler-Rozin, D.E. Treister, R. Scheyer
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

What happens to employees when customers get angry at them? Researchers (Rafaeli et al., 2012) conducted four experiments and found that employees’ performance suffers when customers become verbally aggressive. Under these circumstances, employees will have a harder time remembering things and have worse perception. Why? Exposure to anger requires people to make sense of why someone is angry. It also requires people to plan a response to dealing with the anger. These processes use up valuable mental resources, which are best reserved for focusing on the job at hand.

Another reaction that anger causes is a state of arousal, which happens any time people are faced with a threat. When this happens, employees focus their attention on the angry customer and lose sight of the task at hand. When people perceive a threat, they also may be more likely to retaliate, even when it is not a beneficial reaction.


These findings became even stronger when customers were considered high status. This means that employees became even more distracted by aggression from the biggest-spending customers, arguably the people whose satisfaction is most important. On the other hand, the findings of this study became weaker when employees were able to engage in “perspective taking,” which is the ability to consider and understand the viewpoint of another person. In this situation, understanding why the customer is angry leads to patience, while also freeing up mental resources.


What can be done to counter the harmful effects of customer aggression? The researchers emphasize the importance of training to deal with verbal aggression. They say that training to deal with anger needs to occur at the same time employees train for other job components. This makes the anger training more naturalistic. Treating anger as a separate topic with no context might be ineffective when real-life situations arise. Finally, training may want to include strategies for perspective-taking, which might be the best antidote for the angry customer.


Rafaeli, A., Erez, A., Ravid, S., Derfler-Rozin, R., Treister, D.E., & Scheyer, R. (2012). When customers exhibit verbal aggression, employees pay cognitive costs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(5), 931-950.