Yes, Nasty Restaurant Customers, Servers Will Indeed Sabotage Your Food

Study shows why abusing the help isn't a good idea

Chances are you've heard that awful old joke about the waiter slipping an illicit ingredient into the salad dressing of a customer who's pissed him off. No? Well, listen up anyway. A just-released study from Baylor University's Hamkamer School of Business is replete with statistical proof of why it pays to be nice to your server: If you aren't, there's a good chance he or she will exact revenge.

The Baylor team set out to measure what it calls "customer-directed CWB"—counterproductive work behavior, otherwise defined as the stuff that servers do to get back at customers who are asking for it. The school's researchers distributed anonymous questionnaires to 438 servers working in restaurants or bars in a large, unnamed city in the Southwest. The results are enough to blow the foam off your beer.

Fourteen percent of servers admitted that they'd directly insulted difficult guests, and 11 percent had secretly increased their tips without the customer's knowledge. Worse, 5 percent directly threatened a customer who'd mistreated them and 6 percent said they'd "contaminated" a customer's food. (The nature of those contaminants was unspecified, but take your pick.)

The most common forms of server retribution were less apparent, if not less alarming. Seventy-nine percent of servers admitted to poking fun at unreasonable customers with their co-workers, and 61 and 65 percent said they either ignored those customers or made them wait unnecessarily long.

Of course, the point of the study wasn't to expose the malfeasance of servers as such, but instead to reconsider the validity of a longstanding bit of service-industry wisdom. "The mantra of 'the customer is always right' is well established and is actually critical to the business model for most service companies," said Baylor management professor Emily Hunter. "Unfortunately," she added, "this mandate may lead to stress for the frontline employee"—stress that results in revenge behavior.

Hunter's research suggests that companies should distance themselves from the right/wrong construct, and instead give employees the necessary autonomy and authority to resolve disputes as they arise. Addressing conflict issues shouldn't be seen as touchy-feely stuff, she contended, but as a simple matter of revenue and profits. "Behavior of frontline employees has a real impact on the company's bottom line," Hunter said. "Therefore, preventing counterproductive behaviors where employees yell at, ignore, or degrade customers is critical."

The textbook example of just how critical customer-employee disputes can get doesn't come from the restaurant industry, actually, but the airlines. In 2010, Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater, driven to his breaking point by a recalcitrant customer, let fly a string of invective on the plane's intercom, popped open a beer, and made his exit by deploying the emergency chute.

As Peggy Noonan wrote on The Wall Street Journal later that year: "Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy. Which means we are forced to interact with each other, every day, in person and by phone and email. And it's making us all a little mad."