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Just 11 per cent of customers who witnessed rude behaviour against a server intervened in the Haskayne-led research, although 75 per cent of customers offered verbal support to the servers after the rude customer left.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's bimonthly roundup of research from business schools.

It's been few years since Sandy Hershcovis made a living as a retail sales clerk, but she can still clearly remember the rude and, at times, violent behaviour to which she was exposed while on the front lines of customer service.

In one particularly memorable incident, Dr. Hershcovis was berated by a woman who was angry she could not return a pair of underwear, which would have been against store policy for sanitary reasons.

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"She told me, 'No wonder you're just a sales person; you're too stupid to do anything else.' And she walked away leaving me with my heart racing," Dr. Hershcovis recalls in an e-mail.

An associate professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, Dr. Hershcovis has channelled that frustration into researching workplace mistreatment.

Her latest work examines what happens when restaurant customers witness fellow customers mistreating restaurant servers. In one part of her research, she and colleagues hired an actor who pretended to be rude to a server in a real restaurant, then observed the reaction of other customers who were unaware of the experiment. The behaviour ranged from sarcasm and unreasonable demands to nasty comments and looking at a smartphone during transactions.

"I always remember how grateful I felt when other customers who witnessed these interactions would take my side and offer me words of support," she says. "So I wanted to more directly study whether witnessing customers would compensate for the bad behaviour of fellow customers."

Her paper was co-authored by marketing professor Namita Bhatnagar at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business in Winnipeg and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The findings offer both good news and bad news to servers. On the downside, researchers found that just 11 per cent of customers who witnessed rude behaviour actually intervened.

"I thought more people would stand up for the server because it was fairly clear that the server had done nothing [in the experiment] to deserve the rude treatment," says Dr. Hershcovis. However, after the customers were debriefed, many of them said they wanted to do or say something to help the server but were unsure of how to effectively intervene.

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On the plus side, almost 75 per cent of customers offered verbal support to the servers after the rude customer left. Customer witnesses were also more likely to raise their tip – by an average of 83 per cent – after witnessing a rude interaction.

"So servers can financially benefit from the rude behaviour of customers," says Dr. Hershcovis.

A secondary study by the researchers found empathetic customers were also more likely to provide positive customer service evaluations and supportive statements.

Previous research in this area has tended to focus on how employees react when other employees, or supervisors, are rude to them. Few studies to date have focused on customer reactions to fellow customers.

Dr. Hershcovis says companies outside the service industry can learn from the findings of her study. She suggests firms take steps to actively create awareness about the harmful effects of customer aggression on staff. That could be something as simple as putting up a sign that encourages customers to be respectful to employees.

"Any actions or policies that help elicit empathy from witnessing customers may lead to stronger supportive reactions from such witnesses," she says.

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Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com.

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