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If you're still waiting for those shishito peppers, ask yourself how you treated the waiter.

A new study of U.S. restaurant employees found that 65 per cent will deliberately dawdle to keep difficult customers waiting longer for their meals. Reassuringly, a much smaller percentage have actually tampered with food: 6 per cent fessed up to "contaminating" the meals of truly horrid diners.

Published recently in the journal Human Performance, the paper, titled The Waiter Spit in My Soup! Antecedents of Customer-Directed Counterproductive Work Behaviour, looks at what servers, hosts, bartenders, cashiers and even managers do when a customer pisses them off. Quizzing 438 staff who had been stressed out by aggressive or overly demanding customers, the Texan research team discovered a range of retaliatory behaviours, from employees ignoring diners to surreptitiously increasing their tips.

The authors – Lisa M. Penney, a University of Houston associate professor who looks at industrial organizational psychology, and Emily M. Hunter, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor University in Waco, Tex. – both once toiled in the restaurant industry. In their current study, they found that staff dealing with taxing customers are more likely to exhibit counterproductive work behaviour, "volitional acts by employees that harm or intend to harm organizations and their stakeholders."

So what stresses out restaurant staff? "Disproportionate customer expectations, customer verbal aggression, disliked or unpleasant customers and ambiguous customer expectations," according to the researchers.

"Having frequent, demanding interactions with customers is taxing on service employees who, despite feeling frustrated with or angered by customers, must maintain a friendly demeanour. As a result, employees may have few emotional resources left to allocate toward positive service behaviours," a release for the study states.

Beyond rude customers, being forced to maintain "service with a smile" is a stress factor for waitstaff. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild called it "emotional labour," the requirement to display emotions toward clients at your job. Hochschild explored the cost of emotional labour on those who do it for a living – waitstaff, flight attendants and nurses – in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.

"Where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal, and from the beginning customer and client assume different rights to feeling and display. The ledger is supposedly evened by a wage," wrote Greta Foff Paules in her 1991 study Dishing it Out, which mined the experiences of tough New Jersey waitresses.

"The laborious emotional demands of these positions make it difficult for an employee to maintain positive emotions while managing any negative emotions they may experience on the job," wrote Hunter in the current study.

So how do waitstaff lash out? Here's a sampling of their confessions:

  • 79 per cent mocked customers behind their backs
  • 78 per cent lied to diners
  • 61 per cent ignored them
  • 43 per cent argued openly with their customers
  • 25 per cent made a point of refusing a diner’s reasonable request
  • 19 per cent confronted bad tippers
  • 11 per cent increased a tip without permission on a credit card payment
  • 5 per cent threatened a customer

For those who have slogged in the service industry, you generally know to treat your server like a human, go easy on the substitutions and tip decently. But of course even the most genteel customer runs into a sadistic waiter occasionally. The study authors suggest companies hire people with low anger and high self-control, offering frequent rest breaks to reduce employee burnout. And contaminated burgers.

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