From videos of drunk and disorderly airline passengers to stories of hospital visitors angrily refusing to wear masks, customer-facing work seems to have gotten a lot more difficult – even dangerous — over the past few years. It’s important that organizations understand the experience of frontline workers now, and help to better protect their employees, says Christine Porath, professor of management at Georgetown University. She’s studied incivility for 20 years, and has spoken to workers in many industries in the last few years about what it’s like working with customers today – with stress, anger, and incivility seemingly on the rise. And she has advice for managers and leaders. Porath is the author of the HBR Big Idea article “Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry.”
Note: This podcast mentions threats of violence and sexual assault.
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
We’ve all heard the stories and seen the videos, cafe patrons shouting racist insults, hospital visitors angrily refusing to wear masks, drunk and disorderly airline passengers. Customer facing work seems to have gotten a lot more difficult, even dangerous over the past few years. What exactly are frontline workers experiencing now? How are they handling it? Is the problem really worse than ever? And if so, why? Also, what can companies do to prevent people from behaving this way or at least better protect their employees?
My guest today has studied incivility for two decades and a few months ago, HBR asked her to look into these questions. She’s here today to talk about what she found and give us some advice on how organizations and individuals should deal with unruly customers. Christine Porath is a professor of management at Georgetown University. She wrote the HBR Big Idea article, Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry. Christine, thanks so much for being on the show.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Hi. Thanks for having me.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s start by talking about the types of workers that you studied and talked to for this article. Who are they?
CHRISTINE PORATH: So HBR really encouraged me to go global with this. We had been thinking and seeing that this was a real problem in the US and really wanted to know was it the same in other places? So we intentionally tried to get data from across the world around what people were experiencing and witnessing when it came to rudeness.
ALISON BEARD: And what types of workers we’re talking about? I mentioned baristas, flight attendants, hospital workers, who else?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Yeah, really any frontline worker. That could be someone that’s checking you out at the grocery store. It could be someone that is driving the bus to work. It could be anyone that you interact with in order to gain services, have a meal, travel.
It really was up to people answering the survey. What was nice was that we had such diversity in terms of people answering the survey, so it was global. People came from 25 different industries as well as kind of other. And so we believe that we captured a really great group across a broad array of industries and places throughout the world in terms of what they were seeing, what they were experiencing and how they feel rudeness is these days.
ALISON BEARD: And what are some of the stories that you heard from them?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Well, the stories were actually quite terrible, particularly in places like healthcare. It was really heartbreaking to hear what nurses and physicians and technicians were dealing with on a daily basis. There was one in particular that struck me that was an emergency pediatrician, and he or she saw that a father had actually left the room over having a mask on. And the six-year-old spoke up and mentioned that in fact, daddy had spit on the floor. And when this pediatrician looked down, they saw that in fact, there was a huge spit wad on the ground.
One retail employee related a customer’s response to her saying, “Good morning, I do not need you for anything. Leave me alone. If I need you, I will call you. You are here to serve, not to talk with me.”
So those were just a couple, but there were many, whether it was a traveler seeing someone mistreating the person that picked them up, shoving his luggage to her and saying, “What are you waiting for? Get your act together.” There was a former school principal that explained what educators and staff feel like these days, and there was reports of online behavior exemplified by the emails received by one customer support team of a video game company in which a customer was upset about some experience they had in the game. And they sent long paragraphs of complaints that included comments such as telling the support representatives that they hope their wives and daughters will be raped.
ALISON BEARD: All of this is awful. I mean, can’t keep asking you questions without just commenting on that. That is horrible. And did you find that this kind of behavior is indeed on the rise?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Yes, definitely. One of the things that we had been tracking is how often people surveyed were treated rudely per month. And so in 2005, nearly half of people surveyed reported that they were treated rudely at least once a month. By 2016, it was up to 62%. And this past August, over 76% of people claimed that they had been treated rudely in this month time. So that’s quite a rise within the last six years in particular.
ALISON BEARD: Were certain industries or geographies worse than others?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Not significant differences. Sadly, it’s prevalent across the globe right now. And my experience over the last couple decades has been that every industry believes that they are the worst, that unfortunately it is bad in so many places. I would have to say the extreme as far as at least intensity, and then how often people are witnessing it though, healthcare was a big one that popped. And I think we’re probably not surprised by that maybe, but it’s hard to imagine given how much these people are serving us, particularly putting their health on the line through the pandemic for us, that they would encounter this much rudeness.
ALISON BEARD: Absolutely. And did you find that certain types of frontline workers are mistreated more than others based, for example, on their gender or race or age?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Yeah. I mean, I think from other work what we’re seeing is sadly that based on gender, certainly based on race right now, there are real issues around this. That was one of the things that Adrienne Boissy had spoken to me about. One of the things that she said to me was just months into the pandemic is like, “Oh, I’m sure you know it’s never been this bad.” And specifically she touched on the fact of how bad it was around racial issues in particular.
ALISON BEARD: And you mentioned the customer support workers who were experiencing incivility via email. The Big Idea package included a piece on content moderation as well. So that’s another type of frontline work, and those people are experiencing the same type of rudeness.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Definitely. And I think taking this more broadly to society, I think a lot of people are unfortunately dealing with, whether it’s trolling or just a lot of negativity via social media. So I think that that in some ways it tends to cause more of this.
ALISON BEARD: Why do you think that it has gotten so much worse over the past decade or so?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Well, I think we’ve always found that the number one driver around rudeness is stress. And in this case, with this survey, 73% said that they were rude to coworkers. They blamed it on stress, and 61% claimed that they were overloaded with work. And so I think right now, whether it’s the pandemic, the economy, war, divisive politics, the changing nature of work, and really our continued uncertainty around things, I think that has led to much more stress for people. And particularly in the last couple years, I think that there’s reduced self-care, people are exercising less, we’re not getting as much sleep, and all of that makes it much tougher to regulate our emotions and respond well, particularly in the face of challenging people in situations.
I think the other big one is negative emotions. We know that we are experiencing more of this and also that we’re ingesting a lot more of that, whether that’s through social media, whether that’s through negative stuff that we’re ingesting on various platforms throughout the day.
And then in addition to technology, which you mentioned, I think the idea of just we have weakened ties. And so there’s been a general fraying of community and workplace relationships over the last decade. I mean, one of the things that really surprised me and inspired me to work more on community was that when Tony Schwartz and I surveyed over 20,000 people, largely with HBR, what we found is that 65% of people reported that they had no sense of community at work. And that was well before the pandemic. More recently, we collected some data with The Conferences for Women, and those respondents reported 37% decrease in community since the pandemic. So I think generally that’s playing into this as well. We don’t feel as close to people. We don’t have a support network. We’re out of practice dealing with people, and none of that is helping either.
ALISON BEARD: Let me take a quick step back and just ask, how do you define incivility?
CHRISTINE PORATH: I define incivility as rudeness or disrespect or insensitive behavior. The tricky part is it’s all in the eyes of the beholder, so it’s whether someone felt mistreated. And so naturally that’s subjective, and it definitely includes a lot of different behaviors. I mean, it runs the gamut from things like belittling someone or demeaning them in some way. It includes things like offensive jokes. It even includes things like if you are not paying attention to someone. I mean, if someone feels like you’re intentionally doing that and making them feel small.
ALISON BEARD: But given all the stories you heard, it seems like the beholders were correct in believing that the behavior was uncivil.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Definitely. And one thing that we do roll out, so we try to define that this should not include any kind of physical aggression or violence. Although clearly incivility could spiral, but what we’re looking to capture is less intense in form than aggression or violence. Sometimes it’s just a one time episode that nonetheless can be really consequential for people. I mean, a lot of people hold onto these for not just weeks or months, but years. And so it can be really damaging for people as far as the mental and physical toll on them.
ALISON BEARD: What is the net effect that you’ve seen on workers? How does it affect them in terms of their engagement, their performance? All of it.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Unfortunately, it has a lot of negative consequences. So when this happens to someone, what we find, or even if they just witness it, it pulls them off track such that people have a hard time concentrating on the task at hand. They lose attention, they lose focus, they make more errors, and they perform far worse. We know from other studies that they are far less creative when this happens, and even witnesses are three times less likely to help anyone when this occurs. So it really shuts people down in a lot of different ways. You mentioned, and it’s certainly the case that people are affected emotionally by this as well. It can lead them to question themselves and I think we attach this to what’s called the looking-glass self. So we use others’ expressions, whether they’re smiling at us or snarling at us. We use people’s behaviors or their reactions to define ourselves for better and worse. And so that affects the way that people do their work when they’re mistreated, I think.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And then obviously there’s a knock-on effect on team performance, corporate performance.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Definitely. So we also find that people are more likely to quit in environments like this. It doesn’t have to be that you’re the one who’s necessarily even experiencing it, but people don’t like to be around this. And we know from the research it takes a real toll on people. So I think that that’s wise on their part.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I’ve seen some stats on the childcare industry in particular has completely not recovered since the pandemic. And you mentioned principals talking about teachers being mistreated, for example. So these are sectors that might not have employees anymore if this continues.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Definitely. And we’re starting to see that more, as you mentioned, in education. But I think healthcare has really scary trends right now as far as just we don’t have the supply that we need and key positions because of burnout, because of just how much we’ve stretched them, but also mistreated them. It’s often the case when traveling that there’s a shortage of whether it’s bus drivers, whether it’s TSA agents. I think in general we’re seeing that people that are on the front lines, this kind of rudeness and such a behavior, disrespect, what have you, has really left people questioning, is it worth it?
ALISON BEARD: Okay. Let’s talk about some solutions. With all these external issues, understaffing, supply chain shortages, shifting rules on things like masks, political division, et cetera, can we really expect businesses to guard against people getting mad?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Well, I think the data suggests they need to for business purposes. I mean, one of the things that I found really fascinating about some of these results was that when customers or society members see an employee being treated rudely, our attitudes towards those employees improve. But the attitudes towards the organization shift in really costly ways. For example, 42% report rude behavior changes perceptions of the company. 40% question whether they want to do business there again after just this one incident. 65% think organizations should do better to protect employees. 45% question values, and the willingness to use the company’s products and services drops 35% after we witness rudeness.
ALISON BEARD: So they have to do something. Does this mean that the old customer is always right mantra just should be thrown away?
CHRISTINE PORATH: I definitely think it should be reconsidered. Yeah, I don’t think that that works in today’s day and age, and especially given, I think how much liberty we gave to that. Meaning I think what frontline employees would say, and what the data in this study suggests is that it’s gone way too far. That we need to rein people in a bit, and that companies should even be considering customers and clients, particularly if they have a pattern of this, but really around nudging them in the direction of having more empathy and treating people with respect.
ALISON BEARD: What are some policies that you’ve seen organizations with large frontline workforces put in place to protect those employees?
CHRISTINE PORATH: One thing would be to first set expectations and establish norms for not only how are we going to treat each other internally, but how do we expect our employees to be treated. And so UMass Memorial has done a wonderful job of establishing standards of respect and now putting them up literally across emergency rooms and hospital entrances and really trying to publicize what they’re looking for. There’s been a number of healthcare organizations, UMass Memorial being, I think at the front of this, trying to nudge customers and patients not only with the signage, but they had code of conducts where when you sign in, even as a visitor, what are the expectations? And if you don’t adhere to those, then they have the ability to kick you out without too much questioning. So I think internally, another big one that is wonderful and doesn’t cost anything is just gestures of appreciation. So really trying to get people, including peers, to speak up and support each other and show gratitude. And so that’s something that helps as well.
ALISON BEARD: Just a few other examples from elsewhere in the Big Idea package. The TSA has signs at airports saying that there will be fines and criminal penalties for threats, verbal abuse, et cetera. Dairy Queen restaurants have signs asking customers to be patient and respect the staff. The Pharmacy Guild of Australia has a downloadable poster to indicate that there’s zero tolerance approach toward aggressive and abusive behavior against pharmacists. And then another example was a call center in Korea where they actually had loved ones of the workers record messages that would be played to the people waiting to be served, just to remind them that these are humans that you’re talking to. It’s not a robot on the other end of the phone, it’s another person.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Wow. Yeah, I love that. Adriene McCoy from Baptist Health down in Florida, she told me about what struck her early on in the pandemic was a sign at Starbucks that said, “People who are here chose to be here.” And it just shifted her mindset about that. And that’s where I think, again, these nudges can be really helpful in providing more awareness to us.
ALISON BEARD: So I was going to ask what frontline managers should do, but how much of the onus should be on the people who are dealing with customers versus the businesses to make sure that they’re not even experiencing the incivility in the first place?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Unfortunately right now because things are so bad, my answer is both. It’s like hope that everyone is trying to do their job, and that way we at least reduce some of this. But I think businesses and leaders can look out for employees and try to train them with how do we deescalate situations? How do we handle it if it does? What are the protocols? For example, UMass Memorial is training people on how do we deal with a patient or a visitor if they are breaking our code of conduct? What’s the chain of command that if we can’t deescalate, then we call our leader? Then they may eventually end up calling the chief medical officer for how to handle the situation, but what’s the line of fire, so to speak, and the chain of events that we’d use to handle a situation?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I do think there is comfort in knowing that there’s a plan, knowing that your boss and your organization have your back.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Yeah, I think so. I mean, just this last week traveling, I saw an airline employee do that to a gentleman who was starting to get really upset and raise his voice as he was trying to board the airplane. And she just pulled him to the side and warned him and basically said, “We can’t have you getting on the airline like that. We’re not taking that chance.” And it was almost like seeing a toddler being put in time out off to the side of the line, but I thought she handled it really well. I think she kind of waited it out until probably most people boarded. And then assuming that he kind of came down in terms of the emotions and so forth was allowed to board. But I think we’re seeing more of that to try to prevent problems that might be worse.
I thought a very practical idea that Laura Flynn spoke to me about was this idea of if you can give people the benefit of the doubt, so if someone’s uncivil, ask yourself, “Do I have the whole argument?” And importantly, what’s the most generous interpretation of their behavior? This question is especially valuable when you’re stressed or feeling burned out. And so before shutting down or saying no, or displaying frustration, try to appreciate where the other person is, and you might even go one step further and ask, “How can I help them?” And I think that’s a really empathetic and useful way to go about things these days, because we really don’t know what people are going through and what they might be dealing with.
ALISON BEARD: Honestly, though, I hate the idea of putting it back on the employees. You know what I mean?
CHRISTINE PORATH: Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: It’s like let’s be really empathetic toward this man who is yelling racist slurs at me. Like, no. But I get it on a sort of less egregious example when someone has maybe snapped at you or not paid attention to you.
CHRISTINE PORATH: I guess my desire around this whole line of research is just to try to make people more aware of the consequences around this. Even having read about grocery checkout folks that were saying, “No one says please or thank you, or even hello. They’re too busy. They have their earbuds in, they’re looking at their phone. It’s like I’m not even human.” And honestly, it changed the way that I go about checking out. So when I was at Trader Joe’s the next time I thought about it and I thought, I do usually walk in there oftentimes with earbuds having walked, or listen to a podcast, or talking to my mom or whatever the case may be. And I thought, “I really should make more of an effort.”
And so I hope that somehow the research actually inspires us to think about like, “How am I going about things and how am I affecting others?” And this was one of my biggest takeaways over the last couple decades, was that incivility usually arises from ignorance, not malice. So this idea of people just lack awareness around how they’re coming off.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely. I think we can all decide to do better and walk around the world in a kinder way. I think if there’s one thing that we take away from your article, let’s all try to do that.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Well, thank you for shining a light on that message.
ALISON BEARD: Well, thanks so much.
CHRISTINE PORATH: Thank you for having me.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Christine Porath, professor at Georgetown University, and author of the HBR Big Idea article, Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry. If you like today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team, and your organization. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant, and Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.
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