Research Brief: When Customers Behave Badly

A new study focuses on the far-reaching effects of customer-initiated aggression on employees who witness the abuse
Research Brief: When Customers Behave Badly

What Did The Study Look At?

Whether as a shopper or an employee, most of us have seen or heard about customers or clients being abusive to workers. Indeed, despite the public focus on physical acts of violence in the workplace, psychological aggression such as yelling or spreading rumours is over six times more likely to occur (41% of U.S. employees have experienced such extreme behaviour), and is most often initiated by a customer or client. 

In this study, the researchers examine how both direct victims and witnesses are influenced by workplace aggression. They propose a model that links aggression to fear of future aggression which, in turn, influences mental and physical wellbeing, organizational attachment, and turnover rates.

How Was The Study Designed?

Researchers recruited a sample of 428 individuals who worked full- or part-time in the service industry and who interacted with customers on a daily basis. Descriptive statistics were collected from participants, such as number of direct or vicarious acts of aggression, perceived risk of future aggression, organizational attachment, and mental and physical health. The data were then used to test the fit of the proposed model against alternative models and controls.

What Did The Study Find?

  • Employees experiencing psychological or physical aggression by customers or clients at work are likely to experience the fear of future aggression, which can result in far-reaching harmful effects for the individual and the organization.
  • These harmful effects are seen not only in direct victims of workplace aggression but also in those who experience such acts vicariously. Direct aggression has a stronger effect on the employee, although acts of vicarious aggression were reported to be significantly more common.
  • The fear of future aggression at work can have considerable costs to the employee and the organization. It can influence employees' commitment to the job and turnover intentions at the company as well as the employees' mental and physical wellbeing. 

What Do I Need To Know? 

The fall-out from customer-initiated aggression can touch not only the direct victims but witnesses as well. The researchers suggest that social learning theory may offer organizations a way to deal with such workplace situations. They key, they say, is how managers respond to aggressive customer behaviour. “When witnesses observe (a fellow customer) being punished for the aggressive behaviour, it is much less likely that they will perform the behaviour themselves; if they see the behaviour rewarded, re-enactment will become significantly more likely.”

Organizations can therefore reduce workplace aggression by implementing clear policies; such policies have a direct impact on cases of aggression because they influence the future behaviour of observing customers. 


Title: Harm To Those Who Serve: Effects of Direct and Vicarious Customer-Initiated Workplace Aggression 

Authors: Kathryne E. Dupré (Carleton University), Kimberley-Anne Dawe (Carleton University), Julian Barling (Queen’s School of Business) 

Published: Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2014, Vol. 29(13) 2355–2377 

Sarah Dowler

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