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Badly Behaved Customers Leave Employees Feeling Depleted


September 26, 2023

Retail shoppers who buy expensive clothing to fit the part for an important event and later return the worn garments, claiming they did not fit. Restaurant patrons generating false claims about food or service quality to receive free or discounted meals. Of course these examples of customers’ unethical behaviors cost companies money – but new research from Drexel LeBow shows they also have a negative effect on the lives of the company’s employees and their families.

Even though the unethical acts are not directed at the employees themselves, witnessing them may be an overlooked source of job stress. Assistant professor of management Mary Mawritz says: “Employees find it taxing to deal with customer unethical behaviors because the behavior violates moral principles, and there is little the employee can do to correct the injustice. Furthermore, the inability to correct or punish the wrongdoing leaves the employee feeling helpless, and uncomfortable.”

She says this type of job-related stress can deplete a substantial amount of employees’ cognitive, psychological and emotional resources, “which can leave them exhausted and unable to fully attend to other important work and personal demands.” For this reason, even family members of employees may also be negatively affected by customer unethical behavior.

“Organizations may be aware that customer unethical behavior costs millions of dollars annually; however, they may not have considered the substantial hidden costs that occur because of employees’ unfavorable reactions to these customers,” Mawritz says. For example, companies should also take into consideration that these customer unethical behaviors could produce additional secondary losses due to lost employee productivity and increased conflict within the workplace.

Mawritz’ paper, “When the Customer Is Unethical: The Explanatory Role of Employee Emotional Exhaustion Onto Work–Family Conflict, Relationship Conflict With Coworkers, and Job Neglect,” which she co-authored with Rebecca L. Greenbaum, Matthew J. Quade, Joongseo Kim and Durand Crosby, was published in June by the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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Headshot of Mary Mawritz

Associate Professor, Management