Workplace violence

When customers get hostile

Help workers stay safe

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Earlier this year, many employers in retail and hospitality – as well as those in other industries whose workers deal directly with customers – eased or lifted requirements for masking and physical distancing.

The move, based on updated federal guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19, created anticipation among customers for a return to normalcy. For the workers who assist them, however, pre-pandemic life may not be so close at hand.

As some experts see it, the immediate future for workers in customer-facing industries still includes the risk of stress and anxiety stemming from interactions with hostile patrons.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” said Brian Mayer, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and lead author of a recent study exploring pandemic-related stress among grocery store workers. “I think people are still readjusting to the world in terms of limited labor, limited access to goods, and so customers are still going to be stressed.”

Although on-the-job stress can pose a safety hazard in occupations that don’t revolve around interaction with the public, Alicia Grandey, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Pennsylvania State University, believes workers employed in customer-facing industries take on an added layer of worry.

“This is a really critical problem that our frontline workers are facing,” Grandey said, “and it just adds to the distress they have been facing for a long time.”

‘The customer is not always right’

Before the pandemic, many public-facing workplaces subscribed to the credo, “The customer is always right,” said Grandey, whose research includes the areas of workplace mistreatment and emotional labor. PSU researchers define emotional labor as “managing emotions during interactions to achieve professional goals and conform to work role requirements.”

To Grandey, COVID-19 shifted the practicality of workers deferring to customers regardless of treatment.

For one, the pandemic accelerated job insecurity amid the lost hours and pay that accompanied the lockdown phase during the spring of 2020. Then, upon returning to jobs that already carried a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, workers encountered amended roles.

“Not only ‘service with a smile,’” Grandey said, “but also ‘enforce masks,’ which was kind of the opposite of ‘service with a smile’ given people’s reactions.”

Over the past two-plus years, pandemic-driven customer hostility has assumed many forms – and has even taken to the skies. According to Federal Aviation Administration statistics for 2022, as of May 3, the agency has fielded more than 1,300 reports of unruly airline passenger behavior. Of those, more than 800 involved passenger hostility toward federal masking requirements.

Mayer’s study surveyed more than 3,300 grocery store workers in Arizona. It found that high levels of interaction with potentially hostile customers triggered “high levels of mental health distress.” The study concluded that a feeling that they lack employer support could create a trickle-down effect on workers who are experiencing anxiety, depression and distress.

“People are anticipating that these things are going to happen,” Mayer said. “But as you’re sort of thinking about, ‘Is this next person that’s going to come in the door or this next person that looks agitated at my register, if they’re going to threaten me, if they’re going to yell at me, that I’m going to have to do this on my own,’ that’s going to contribute to stress even if it doesn’t happen.” Grandey contends that, in the current environment, asking workers to deliver friendly service regardless of treatment may border on unethical.

“Employers need to be letting employees know as a first step that they have their backs, that they will not tolerate customers who are abusive,” she said. “The customer is not always right, and when they are abusive, the employee has the right to say, ‘I will not be treated like that, and this conversation is over,’ and not be penalized for it.”

Providing support and regularly checking in with workers about unpleasant experiences with customers can help employers protect the well-being and retention of frontline staff, Grandey added.

“Asking employees, the ones who are interacting daily with customers, for input, that’s what helps them feel valuable, helps them feel safe and psychologically protected at work,” she said. “And they’re likely to have a good idea of the kind of interactions they’re going to have and the kinds of strategies that will and won’t work. Managers don’t have to have all the answers, but they do need to know what questions to ask.”

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