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Hostile customers trigger response

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LOGAN, Utah — The customer might “always be right,” but that doesn’t mean employees dealing with rude customers aren’t human. It’s an almost involuntary and immediate response for employees to retaliate in some fashion toward customers who are harsh or overly aggressive, according to new research by Julena Bonner, a professor at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.

The paper, titled “Why sabotage customers who mistreat you? Activated hostility and subsequent devaluation of targets as a moral disengagement mechanism,” explores why employees sometimes sabotage customers following a hostile interaction, and whether it can be prevented. Coauthored by Yu-Shan (Sandy) Huang of Northern Michigan University, Rebecca Greenbaum of State University of New Jersey, and Cynthia Wang of Northwestern University, the paper appeared in the Journal of Applied ­Psychology.

The research shows that despite understanding potential negative outcomes from backlash toward customers, such as reprimands, damage to company reputation or even termination, employees will still consciously react to perceived mistreatment in a way that can cause harm to a customer.

“It’s human nature,” said Bonner. “When a person is treated poorly, they lash out with an ‘eye for an eye’ mentality. There are negative ramifications for the employee and for the organization, but people often just can’t help themselves.”

While negative reactions happen so quickly that they may seem involuntary on the part of the employee, Bonner discovered that a company’s culture can mitigate bad employee behavior. Employees are more likely to sabotage customers if they perceive their workplace has an unethical culture — for example, seeing or hearing about fellow employees retaliating against customers without punishment. Conversely, when a work environment has a strong culture of ethical behavior, employees are more likely to control their reactions and behave professionally.


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