Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New Research Explains Why Employees Retaliate Against Difficult Customers



New research co-authored by a Utah State University professor delves into the age-old question: Why do waiters spit in our food?

“We wanted to understand the emotional and cognitive process that allows us to respond to bad behavior with our bad behavior when really we know we shouldn’t treat people like that,” said Julena Bonner, a USU professor and co-author of the research. “But still we are able to justify it.”

Bonner said the research attempts to explain why employees sometimes retaliate against rude customers.

“We all have experience being one of these two people, either we feel terrible because we’re being mistreated or we then have to deal with the consequences of that employee mistreating us because we mistreated them.”

The research, which was collected from both customer service employees and experimental data, found that employees can morally disengage themselves from the situation, devalue the customer and make snap moral judgements —  all of which are used to justify the response from the employee’s perspective.

“We found support for what’s called the social intuitionist approach to moral judgement, which means our moral judgements and subsequent behaviors are often driven by intuitive emotional responses,” she said.

Bonner said she hoped this new research can help change this pattern of retaliation.

“Because if we can understand the process, that can help us find ways to disrupt the process,” she said. “We can look for things that can help mitigate our bad responses.”

This is an especially relevant topic around the holiday season, Bonner said, because of the increase in interactions with customer service workers.

“It becomes something that we need to be aware of because these types of interactions aren’t good for us — for anyone involved in the situation, for the customer and the employee,” she said.

The research also found that employees in a work environment that actively promotes ethical behavior, were less likely to retaliate against difficult customers.  

“It’s important for us to understand the value of promoting ethics within organizations,” Bonner said. “Talking about them and making sure they are an important part of the organizational culture. And as we create these environments that are more ethical, I think it can help to solve a lot of different problems.”


While the research only focused on employee retaliation, for future research projects, Bonner said it would be interesting to ask why customers mistreat employees.