When waiters attack!

Oct 09, 2014

Apparently, it’s tough to turn the other cheek or even to simply ignore an abusive customer — at least when it comes to waitstaff.

Researchers from Baylor University and The University of Houston said that while much research has explored what drives employees to lash out at supervisors and co-workers, little is known about what drives "counterproductive work behavior" (CWB) by workers toward their customers.

The study, The Waiter Spit in My Soup! Antecedents of Customer-Directed Counterproductive Work Behavior, first appeared in the Human Performance periodical.

Using survey research of 438 food service employees (including servers, hosts, bartenders, cashiers, and managers), the researchers found these workers particularly challenged by "emotional regulation strain," or continually having to maintain a friendly demeanor despite feeling frustrated with or angered by customers. The range of customer stressors include disproportionate customer expectations, customer verbal aggression, generally unpleasant customers, and ambiguous customer expectations.

"Food service employees generally do their best to provide a positive experience for customers," said Dr. Lisa Penney, one of the co-authors, in a statement. "However, they are human too, and the strain of dealing with extremely rude, demanding or difficult customers can manifest in ways that do not benefit customers."

According to the survey, 79 percent of the food service workers at least once or twice made fun of customers to someone else. Other CWB actions they had done once or twice were lying (78 percent), making a customer wait longer (65 percent), ignoring them (61 percent), acting rudely (52 percent) and arguing (43 percent). At the extreme, workers admitted they had refused a reasonable request (25 percent), confronted a customer about tips (19 percent), insulted a customer (14 percent), increased a tip without permission (11 percent), contaminated food (6 percent), or threatened a customer (5 percent).

Do retailers and food service establishments have enough coping strategies in place to help associates deal with negative or abusive customer experiences? Should some degree of CWB be expected and even allowed as stress relief?

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14 Comments on "When waiters attack!"

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Keith Anderson

What a sad cultural state we’re in.

Early in my career, I was asked to do a live cold call during an interview at a staffing firm. The first person to answer told me to [expletive] off and hung up. Without skipping a beat, the hiring manager re-dialed and politely explained that he was surprised and disappointed by the call recipient’s behavior, and that he had been added to a do-not-call list but could have requested as much more politely.

Training and skin-thickening role playing may help the situation. Additionally, managers should defend their employees when customers are abusive, and everyone should dump significant others that behave abusively towards retail employees and waitstaff.

Ken Lonyai

I believe that this phenomenon is largely a reflection of the management of a restaurant and is applicable to any business really. Places that care about customers, hire carefully, and train their workers to care or at least adopt the company’s customer policies, will likely have lower incidences of these issues, notice them more and take actions to correct them. Where the manager is unhappy, overburdened or apathetic, it sends a signal to employees and opens the door for bad behavior.

Bob Phibbs

Fish rots from the top down. Empowered, trained and valued employees empower and value others.

I would suggest anyone dealing with the public, from auto mechanics to grocery cashiers to the guy at the Qwikie Mart can get frustrated—we all can. When looking for answers, c-level execs and owners,¯look in the mirror—not at some “strategy” with an acronym.

Don Uselmann
Don Uselmann
3 years 1 month ago

All service employees need to understand that while the customer is not always right, the customer is always the customer and needs to be treated like what they are—the reason the business exists. Waiters and service employees could be helped in handling difficult customers through additional training, which long-term would have a positive impact on the business.

Truly abusive customers need to be handled by management which can have two very positive impacts: 1.) Demonstrates support of the employees in not allowing the abuse to continue and improves their morale, and 2.) Teaches by example how to mitigate potentially abusive interactions. The worst thing a restaurant or any service business can do is to have management that avoids customer interactions. Without the customer there is no business.

Tom Redd

With the social aspect of retail/food service this old-world behavior of associates must end. Retailers need to create programs to calm their people down and better serve the shopper no matter their mood. The social side kicks in when the shopper or guest spreads the word about how badly they were treated. Social negatives travel very fast so retailer/food service operations need to get programs in place and get rid of managers that cannot cut dealing with associates who are stressed out over customers.

I have had this type of issue more than once and I call their headquarters on it if I believe the manager does not care. Had this once at a retailer. The clerk went ballistic with me on a simple question. He screamed and walked out of the store. The manager apologized and mentioned that they had been having problems with the person lately. This told me the manager did not know how to fire someone or apply CWB issues.

Alert their HQs on the issue.


Ian Percy
Hmmmm, so we need “enough coping strategies” do we? “Cope” from 14th century Old French meant “come to blows with” or to “hit, punch.” Not until the 17th century did it come to mean “handle successfully.” Apparently many haven’t quite made the transition. Interestingly, since most of the article’s references were about restaurant behavior, “cope” is also tied to the word “cheap” as in “the customer at that table was a cheap @$#%^&*!” Quite some time ago in a book titled “Going Deep” I suggested that this prevalent anger about life and everything else (it was labelled “irritation” in the book) is the result of the conflict between our genetic/embedded drive to discover the full and joyous possibilities of our lives, and our imposed servitude to the prevailing institutions equally determined to negate those possibilities. By “institutions” I mean school, work, church, governments and at times even family. Many feel like the chickens in an egg factory cramped in wire cubicles unable to stretch their wings. How we long to be “free-range” chickens able to live as we were intended to live. For a while I promoted a “Free the Chickens” campaigns within some of my corporate clients. The employees… Read more »
Cathy Hotka

I manage 35 business dinner events a year, so I meet a lot of waitstaff. They’re uniformly competent, polite and accommodating. I’m going to guess that people who complain about servers have probably acted in an offensive way themselves. To get great service, treat your server like a person.

Shep Hyken

The customer is NOT always right. But, they are always the customer, so if they are wrong, let them be wrong with dignity and respect. If a customer is truly abusive, then let the customer go, but always keep the door open. Keeping abusive customers around is bad for business on several levels. Most important is the employee feels abused and doesn’t see his/her leadership taking care of the situation. When a manager, owner, executive, etc. makes the decision to “fire” the customer, done the right way, it sends a positive message to the employees. All that said, as mentioned above, let the customer be wrong with dignity (especially yours).

Ed Rosenbaum

Why do you think some customers see the wait staff as their personal employees and talk to them in such a manner? Respect is a two-way street. We, the customer have to remember that at all times. The wait staff gets a less than modest salary and, in many cases, have to buy their food same as we have to pay for it. They work for tips and have that in mind at all times. They know the better service they give the better tip they might receive. That does not give us the right to speak down or in a demeaning fashion to them in any way. They are humans and deserve all our respect just like any person working in a service environment.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 1 month ago

Customer behavior that disrupts the normal course of business and creates a disturbance that affects the ability of other customers to have an enjoyable experience should be dealt with by management. Anything less than that should be handled by the wait staff, which, unfortunately, can still mean bucking up to rudeness, disdain or overly high expectations with a smile.

It’s important for anyone who serves other people to keep in mind that you never know what that person had to endure during the day prior to choosing to eat there. Anyone can have a bad day and be surly and unpleasant.

However, profanity, threats or grabbing or inappropriately touching wait staff steps over the line. The waiter should immediately report this to the manager. The manager should then be the one to address this level of aggressive or bullying behavior.

It’s important for management to champion both their customers and their staff. Otherwise they may leave and not return.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
3 years 1 month ago

Today there is an excuse for everything, including our bad behavior. Not all excuses are justifiable but are mostly tolerated. That creates human stress.

The customer is not always right as many like to abuse that privilege. Not all services are honorable. Stress relief for both waitstaff and customers should come from within since our prevailing culture encourages much of our bad behavior.

Lee Kent

Establishments that support their employees, show respect, and treat them with courtesy will likely share the same behavior with their customers. That said, rude customers can get anybodies goat.

I say, pass the rude customer off to the manager or maybe just another server and the customer may think he is getting something special and calm down!

Ralph Jacobson

Well, working with the public in a most basic, primal needs category such as serving food, you will tend to have cranky customers who didn’t receive what they wanted, and equally cranky people serving them.

It’s a shame that this is a trend and I wonder if it is true globally, outside the U.S. Are there employee training strategies that are properly executed to manage this customer service challenge? Not really, in most cases. Can it be better addressed and even resolved ultimately? Of course. No negative service should ever be tolerated by management. The problem needs to be addressed with proper “conflict resolution” training. Plain and simple… just not that easy.

James Tenser

We may reasonably hypothesize that difficult or even abusive customers are a primary source of work stress among service employees. This study seems to confirm this. That does not mean businesses should allow customer-facing employees to deviate from their standards of courtesy and decency, however.

We must acknowledge openly that customers are not always right. Far from it, in my opinion. But they are always customers, and a service professional is obligated to try to pursue the best possible service outcome on each occasion — even if the customer is a flat-out jerk.

To make this more achievable, employers are obligated to provide two things: training in what’s right and how to cope when things go wrong; and sound policies that allow a well-trained employee enough discretion to at least try for a win on each customer visit.

Some workers simply are not possessed of the sort of innate personality traits that enable them to cope with un-winnable service situations. When identified, they may be counseled (without prejudice) to either learn to fake it or seek more appropriate employment.


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