Is the customer always right? Aaron Schat looks at workplace aggression and revenge behaviours

Izabela Szydlo, DeGroote Research Writer | Hamilton | February 8, 2018

At McMaster University, students, researchers, faculty, and staff collaborate across disciplines to explore and expand their potential in a globally renowned, innovative education and research community, committed to advancing societal health and wellbeing. For the next several months, the DeGroote School of Business will be highlighting researchers that are contributing to this push for a brighter world.

Do you ever recall receiving poor service at a restaurant? How about dealing with an inattentive sales associate? Now, think carefully: Were you the one being overly demanding or hostile to begin with?

If so, you may have unknowingly been involved in an a case of workplace aggression – an area of great interest to Aaron Schat, Area Chair, Human Resources and Management, DeGroote School of Business.

Schat, who researches work-related stress, health, and safety, is trying to understand how experiencing aggression or incivility at work influences employee wellbeing, attitudes, and performance. He’s also interested in how work environments may increase or decrease the likelihood of aggression.

The research is important, Schat explains, because it sheds light on how certain mantras such as “the customer is always right” may be exposing workers to incivility.

A study on the subject led by Schat and DeGroote PhD alumna Akanksha Bedi, now a Professor at California State University, Northridge, was recently published in the Journal of Services Marketing. The study, called Employee Revenge Against Uncivil Customers, investigated whether incivility by a patron would stimulate a customer service employee to seek revenge in some fashion.

As part of the research, Schat and Bedi surveyed workers in a variety of customer service contexts. They asked them to describe specific instances of incivility they experienced from customers, and respond to questions about their emotional and behavioural reactions to the incivility.

What they found is that when employees experience incivility [being yelled at or treated with disrespect, for example], they make a judgement call about the blameworthiness of the customer, Schat explains. In other words, whether the incivility is due to the customer being mean or unreasonable, or whether their behaviour can be explained by poor service or a defective product

“The more blameworthy the customer is judged to be, the more likely it is that the employee will seek to get back at the customer,” Schat says.

Because the service industry is often tilted in favour of the customer, Schat says so-called “revenge” on the customer is covert and subtle. This behaviour can include altering the quality of service or making negative comments about the customer to others.

“What’s interesting about these types of revenge behaviours is that they are done not to send a message to the customer. They are not intended to even really be noticed,” he says. “Rather, they are done to restore justice in one’s own mind.”

Schat says he hopes research of this nature will encourage organizational leaders to be more sensitive to these situations. He also wants to encourage members of the public to be aware of their behaviour in a customer service environment.

“In this sense, I hope the research contributes to workplaces that fully protect and promote the dignity of the people who work there, and ultimately to promote a more civil society,” he adds.


Aaron Schat’s research interests are in the areas of work-related stress, health, and safety, and his primary expertise is in the study of workplace aggression. His recent research involves investigating the nature and prevalence of workers’ exposure to workplace aggression and examining the antecedents and consequences of exposure to workplace aggression. He also conducts research on workers’ attitudes toward money and the effects of such attitudes on work-related attitudes and behaviour. Schat currently teaches introductory and advanced courses in Human Resources and Management.

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