Hey customers, you may be right. But you don’t get to be mean

A bartender and a customer talk at a bar. The customer is Aaron Schat, a DeGroote School of Business associate professor who studies the way customers treat front-line service workers. Photo by Sarah Janes

DeGroote School of Business associate professor Aaron Schat knows how much aggression servers and customer-service workers face. And he knows it takes a toll on them, long after the work day is done. Photo by Sarah Janes

Aaron Schat is nice to wait staff. He’s kind to cashiers at the store. He never yells at IT support on the phone.

And he knows for a fact the customer is not always right.

“In society today, there seems to be a primacy of customer service, reflected in that mantra of ‘The customer is always right’,” Schat says. “It’s so pervasive that when we’re customers, many of us act like we have implicit permission to behave in ways that we otherwise never would.”

An expert on industrial-organizational psychology, Schat knows how much aggression and incivility customer-service workers face. And he understands the toll it takes on them, long after the work day is done.

“It’s no surprise — these things affect your life outside work,” he says. “Work contributes to our wellness or illness on a variety of levels — physically, psychologically, spiritually.”

Schat, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the  DeGroote School of Business, has long studied the impact of workplace aggression or mistreatment on people’s health and well-being.

“The underlying thrust of my research is trying to bring greater dignity and respect to the work environment,” he says.

It’s what drew him to study industrial-organizational psychology, a field that marries his twin interests in business and psychology. But even before he began graduate studies in the field, Schat had seen the effects of workplace mistreatment up close.

“I watched someone I was close to experience significant mistreatment at work,” he recalls. “And seeing the consequences of that — how it affected this person’s day-to-day health, other people in the workplace, and the organization, too — it made it clear to me how fundamental work is to our health and well-being.”

Schat hopes that his work will ultimately help workers navigate stressful workplace interactions, and better equip leaders to manage their organizations.

From Hollywood to tales of retail, Schat can point to examples of mistreatment or bullying in the workplace — sometimes overt, sometimes insidious.

It’s an increasingly relevant topic in today’s professional environment — Schat says he’s seen a heightened awareness of workplace aggression in the past few years.As an expert in the field, he often fields calls from the media looking for insights into current affairs.

“There’s an increasing desire to do something about it, arising from a growing concern about work-related health,” he says.

In recent years, Schat has focused primarily on customer service workers, and he recently co-authored a paper exploring what drives some employees to seek revenge on difficult customers through small retaliatory acts — leaving them on hold for too long, or serving watered-down drinks, for instance.

In the age of “the customer is always right,” organizations often make employees bear full responsibility to make customers happy, Schat says. That means the person fielding a frustrated phone call about a defective product, or the server who delivered a dish that doesn’t measure up, comes in for the brunt of the customer’s disapproval.

“But everyone doing those jobs is a person, just like you or me, and they deserve to be treated with civility and dignity,” Schat says.

“I’d like to see more organizations taking responsibility for, and protecting, the well-being and dignity of workers in these types of roles, and reducing their tolerance of customers behaving in uncivil ways to their workers.”

Schat and a PhD student are currently analyzing data from another study, which examines whether being able to vent to or receive advice from a peer helps workers handle difficult customer interactions.

“We’re hoping this research will provide a basis for making recommendations to organizations about the advice, training, and support they give workers to help them more effectively navigate the challenges of a customer service role,” Schat says.

Part of Schat’s role at the DeGroote School is training the managers and leaders of the future. Supporting their workers and having difficult conversations is a key part of such roles, he notes.

“I have students who contact me a years later to say, ‘I wish I’d paid more attention in your class,’ or ‘The kinds of issues I’m facing are what you taught me about.’ Sometimes it takes a few years for that penny to drop.”

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