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Service interactions run a gamut from an instrumental self-focus to full social appreciation. Observing another customer’s incivility toward a frontline employee can emphasize social concerns as guiding principles for the observer’s own service interaction. Five studies test these dynamics; the results reveal that an incivility incident leads observers to prioritize social over market concerns. This reprioritization becomes manifest in a subsequent service interaction through increased feelings of warmth toward the employee who experienced incivility. In turn, feelings of warmth prompt observers to provide emotional support to the affected employee. Yet such prosocial inclinations are less likely when an employee is held responsible for or reciprocates incivility. Finally, this article also examines the effects of different employee reaction strategies on observers’ inferences about the employee and the service firm, showing that observers are most positively disposed toward the employee and the firm when the former reacts to incivility with a polite reprimand. Together, the results suggest that, contrary to past theorizing, observing customers may contribute to employee well-being, contingent on appropriate employee responses. Notably, the commonly prescribed polite, submissive employee reaction that requires emotional labor may not be the most desirable reaction—neither for the employee nor for the firm.
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The Social Dimension of Service Interactions:
Observer Reactions to Customer Incivility
Alexander P. Henkel
, Johannes Boegershausen
, Anat Rafaeli
and Jos Lemmink
Service interactions run a gamut from an instrumental self-focus to full social appreciation. Observing another customer’s incivility
toward a frontline employee can emphasize social concerns as guiding principles for the observer’s own service interaction. Five
studies test these dynamics; the results reveal that an incivility incident leads observers to prioritize social over market concerns.
This reprioritization becomes manifest in a subsequent service interaction through increased feelings of warmth toward the
employee who experienced incivility. In turn, feelings of warmth prompt observers to provide emotional support to the affected
employee. Yet such prosocial inclinations are less likely when an employee is held responsible for or reciprocates incivility. Finally,
this article also examines the effects of different employee reaction strategies on observers’ inferences about the employee and
the service firm, showing that observers are most positively disposed toward the employee and the firm when the former reacts
to incivility with a polite reprimand. Together, the results suggest that, contrary to past theorizing, observing customers may
contribute to employee well-being, contingent on appropriate employee responses. Notably, the commonly prescribed polite,
submissive employee reaction that requires emotional labor may not be the most desirable reaction—neither for the employee
nor for the firm.
customer incivility, third-party observers, employee reaction, market versus social mind set, consumer misbehavior
Services are fundamentally social interactions as the two par-
ties in a service exchange are basically two people (Bradley
et al. 2010; Czepiel 1990; McCallum and Harrison 1985).
However, service interactions are not like all other social inter-
actions because they are imbued with market concerns, which
are likely to attune customers to the instrumental value of a
customer service employee, rather than to an employee’s well-
being (Bauer et al. 2012; Clark 1984; Heyman and Ariely 2004;
Solomon et al. 1985). Customers regarding employees as an
element of the service equation, rather than as human beings,
may explain the troubling phenomenon of customer incivility
(Haque and Waytz 2012), which manifests as rude and con-
descending behaviors toward employees (e.g., Walker, van
Jaarsveld, and Skarlicki 2013). Customers are frequent instiga-
tors of interpersonal mistreatment of employees in the work-
place (Grandey, Kern, and Frone 2007). Uncivil customer
behaviors pose severe threats to employee well-being (Lim,
Cortina, and Magley 2008), challenge quality management,
and affect service firms’ bottom line (Pearson and Porath
2009). Theoretical accounts suggest that these negative effects
can be magnified by the behavior of observing third parties
(i.e., other customers) who adopt similar disrespectful beha-
viors (Andersson and Pearson 1999; Elfenbein 2014).
In contrast with such accounts, and drawing from social
psychology and service research (Batson 2014; Ijzerman and
Semin 2009; Solomon et al. 1985), we argue that observed
incivility may shift customers’ instrumental self-focus to a
socially oriented other-focus, thus making salient the basic,
social nature of service interactions. We further propose that
feelings of warmth (Ijzerman and Semin 2009) represent the
most important manifestation of this prioritization of social
concerns in customer service interactions. Specifically, we pre-
dict that observing another customer’s uncivil behavior leads
observers to feel more warmth toward a victimized employee,
which in turn stimulates prosocial, emotionally supportive
behaviors toward that employee. Thus, observers can be poten-
tial sources of alleviation rather than aggravation of employee
well-being, in that they display more rather than less prosocial
behavior toward a targeted employee.
Open University, Heerlen, the Netherlands
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
Maastricht University, Maastricht, the Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Alexander P. Henkel, Open University, P.O. Box 2960, Heerlen 6401 DL,
the Netherlands.
Journal of Service Research
ªThe Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1094670516685179
Customer emotional support has great practical relevance,
with potential restorative effects on employees’ well-being that
can counteract the harmful effects of incivility by other cus-
tomers (Lilius 2012; Zimmermann, Dormann, and Dollard
2011). We show that customers’ inferences of an employee’s
warmth are crucial in guiding their emotional support behavior.
Our results also suggest that characteristics of the situation
shape these inferences, and we identify two important modera-
tors: blame and the employee’s response to customer incivility.
We contribute to existing knowledge on service interactions
and customer incivility in four important ways. First, by focus-
ing on observer reactions to customer incivility, we contribute
to research on the social nature of discrete service interactions
(Czepiel 1990; Grandey et al. 2005; Solomon et al. 1985). Our
findings that incidents of customer incivility prompt observers
to adopt prosocial behaviors offer strong evidence that incivi-
lity can shift a behavioral script toward a more social focus.
Second, in response to repeated calls to examine the potential
effects of uncivil customer-employee exchanges on bystanders
(Fisk et al. 2010; Groth and Grandey 2012; Schilpzand, De
Pater, and Erez 2016), we show that observing customers may
be stress alleviators rather than additional stressors for targeted
employees. Third, in the context of research on the effect of
uncivil customer behavior on observers (Harris and Reynolds
2003; Porath, MacInnis, and Folkes 2010), we identify warmth
as a dimension that guides observers’ anti- and prosocial beha-
viors. Fourth, we offer insights into reactions that service man-
agers can prescribe for employees who encounter customer
incivility, beyond standard, polite, and submissive responses
that emotional labor literature has described (Grandey, Kern,
and Frone 2007). We demonstrate that employee responses that
highlight inappropriate behaviors of customers may be more
effective for both employees and firms.
Conceptual Background and Hypotheses
The Role of Warmth in Service Interactions
Service interactions tend to be task focused, with clearly
defined goals and deindividuated behavioral patterns (i.e.,
scripts) that are agreed on by society (thus implicitly binding
customers and employees; Schau, Dellande, and Gilly 2007;
Solomon et al. 1985). Customers at times even hold a ‘‘cus-
tomer is king’’ mind-set, which can deviate considerably from
general social concerns with equality and mutual respect (Kern
and Grandey 2009). That is, when people assume the role of
customers, they are likely to be less attuned to social concerns
in their interactions (e.g., Bauer et al. 2012; Heyman and Ariely
2004). However, some events can increase the extent to which
customers consider an employee’s human experience, and we
propose that the incivility of another customer toward an
employee is one such event. Observing customer incivility
toward an employee can break the normative script of a service
interaction (Solomon et al. 1985), in which self-focused market
concerns dominate other-focused social concerns and attune an
observer to the social nature of the situation. This is because
incivility creates a sense of discomfort for observers and a
sense that something wrong is happening (De Waal 2008;
Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas 2010; Hoffman 1978).
People tend to have an automatic reaction to such antisocial
behaviors and situations, even if they are not personally
affected by these situations (Cropanzano, Goldman, and Folger
2003). Such dynamics are likely to unfold when customers
observe another customer act in an uncivil manner toward a
customer service employee. Thus, we predict that as incivility
increases customers’ attunement to their social surroundings,
they will be increasingly guided by social concerns after wit-
nessing an uncivil customer-employee interaction. Formally,
Hypothesis 1: Observers of incivility (vs. a civil interac-
tion) between a customer and an employee emphasize social
(vs. market) concerns.
If observing incivility increases observers’ attention to the
social context of their environment, the question is how this
might affect their interaction with the frontline employee. We
argue that observing incivility highlights the employee as a
person and endows the situation with affective valence for an
observing customer, thereby eliciting spontaneous feelings and
acts (Solomon et al. 1985). Thus, a disruption to standard ser-
vice by customer incivility may lead an observer to recognize
the employee as a human being and not merely as a (deindi-
viduated) organizational representative. As such, we propose
that the increased saliency of the social nature of the interaction
between a customer and an employee induces warmer feelings
toward the employee.
Feeling warmth toward another person represents ‘‘one of
human beings’ most central abstract ideas’’ (Ijzerman and
Semin 2009, p. 1214). Holding warm (vs. cold) feelings toward
another person reflects the social proximity (distance) of the
perceiver to the target person. Thus, a socially oriented other
focus is associated with warmth, and an instrumental self-focus
is associated with coldness. Feeling more warmth toward
another person who has been hurt (i.e., the employee) pre-
dicts helping behaviors (Batson et al. 2007; De Waal 2008).
Customers who experience warmth toward an employee are
likely to act in supportive ways; customers who do not feel
warmth, or feel coldness, toward an employee are likely to
refrain from engagement beyond service-relevant, instru-
mental interactions. Thus, an uncivil interaction will aug-
ment observers’ feelings of warmth toward a victimized
employee and, in turn, increase their emotionally supportive
behavior. Formally,
Hypothesis 2a: Observers of customer incivility (vs. a civil
customer) are more likely to offer emotional support to an
Hypothesis 2b: Feelings of warmth mediate the effect of
observing another customer’s incivility on the provision of
emotional support to the employee.
2Journal of Service Research
Blame as a Boundary Condition to Prosocial Observer
Exploratory work on the effect of uncivil customer behavior on
bystanders supports Hypotheses 1 to 2b, in that employees
reported that customer observers sympathize with victimized
employees when they notice customer incivility (Harris and
Reynolds 2003). However, less common instances of observers
not displaying prosocial behavior are also reported, suggesting
that particular situational factors can determine whether and
when increased social concerns lead observers to feel warmth
and offer emotional support toward an employee.
One such factor might be customer blame attributions
toward a service employee or an organization in response to
a service failure (Bitner 1990; Gelbrich 2010; Joireman et al.
2013; Strizhakova, Tsarenko, and Ruth 2012). Attributing
blame involves identifying who is responsible for an event
(Weiner 2013). A customer observing customer incivility and
ascribing the blame for the service failure to the employee
likely presumes that the employee deserves the uncivil treat-
ment (Porath, MacInnis, and Folkes 2011) and may be less
likely to offer support to the employee. Blame attributions
similarly can attenuate a perceiver’s positive affect and helping
behavior toward the target employee (Weiner 1980). Apprais-
ing the uncivil interaction in a manner that deprives the victim
of the deservingness to be helped leads observers to refrain
from approaching the victim and feeling warmth toward him
or her (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas 2010). Therefore,
regardless of increased social concerns, observers who blame
an employee for poor service that gives rise to customer inci-
vility are likely to feel less warmth toward the employee and
are less likely to offer emotional support than observers who
ascribe the blame to a source outside the employee’s control
(e.g., to the service organization). Formally,
Hypothesis 3: Customers who blame (vs. do not blame) the
employee for an underlying service failure are less likely to
feel warmth and offer emotional support to an employee
targeted with incivility.
Efficacy of Different Employee Responses to Customer
Additional boundary conditions in the context of service inter-
actions are likely to counteract a victimized employee’s
deservingness of help (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas
2010). One such factor is the reaction of an employee to cus-
tomer incivility. Examining employee responses is important
and critical, because companies rarely provide employees with
guidelines and scripted reaction strategies of how to best react
to rude customers (e.g., Pearson and Porath 2005), though cus-
tomer sovereignty and emotional labor prescriptions urge
employees to suppress and regulate their reactions (Rafaeli and
Sutton 1987). By default, employees are likely to display sub-
servient behavior toward customers in service interactions
(Shamir 1980); however, they may also resort to a quid pro
quo response to incivility (van Jaarsveld, Walker, and Skarlicki
2010), and such reciprocation may undermine observers’ help-
ing behavior (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas 2010; Porath
and Erez 2007). Indeed, rude employees are frequent triggers
for customer anger and therefore are likely to receive decreased
observer warmth and emotional support in the face of incivility
by another customer (Menon and Dube´ 2000).
Hypothesis 4: Employee incivility (vs. polite behavior) as a
response to a customer’s incivility decreases observing cus-
tomers’ warmth and emotional support toward a victimized
Figure 1 provides an integrated overview of our predictions.
To test these predictions, we conducted five experiments. Our
approach complements previous research that documents inci-
vility in an aggregated form, rather than in a specific service
encounter (e.g., Walker, van Jaarsveld, and Skarlicki 2013),
and with data collected from employees and focusing on
employee-relevant outcomes (Schilpzand, De Pater, and Erez
2016). We investigate the consequences of observing incivility
for customers’ prioritization of social over market concerns as
well as the implications for their own interaction with a service
employee. In doing so, we uncover underlying mechanisms and
boundary conditions as advanced in Hypotheses 1 to 4. Table 1
provides an overview of the main studies and the hypotheses
they address.
Study 1: Prioritization of Social Over Market
Study 1 offers initial support for the notion that customer inci-
vility focuses observing customers on the social nature of a
service situation. Specifically, it shows that (1) market con-
cerns dominate over social concerns in regular marketplace
interactions and (2) among customers observing an incivility
episode, the opposite pattern occurs, and social concerns dom-
inate over concerns.
Participants, Design, and Procedure
We randomly assigned 141 students (57.4%female, M
20.5) at a large Dutch university, who received partial course
credit for participation, to one of the two customer service
scenarios in a retail clothing store: uncivil and civil. All parti-
cipants were asked to imagine that they were waiting in line for
a fitting room behind another customer who was only carrying
a T-shirt. They were then asked to envision a store clerk invit-
ing the customer ahead of them to enter the changing rooms by
saying, ‘‘You may go in now. How many items do you have?
Only one?’’ at which point the incivility manipulation was
introduced. In the civil condition, the customer replied in a
friendly tone, ‘‘Indeed, I only have one.’’ In the incivility con-
dition, the customer replied in a hostile tone, ‘‘Can’t you count?
One.’’ A manipulation check confirmed that participants per-
ceived the customer’s behavior in the incivility condition as
significantly less respectful, considerate, and polite (a¼.96,
Henkel et al. 3
adapted from Porath, MacInnis, and Folkes 2011) than that in
the civil condition, M
¼1.85, M
¼5.03; t(137) ¼
13.79, p< .001.
Dependent Measures
After reading the scenario, participants were asked about guid-
ing principles that would be important to them in this specific
shopping situation. They responded to a 10-item measure, with
5 items representing self-focused market exchange principles
and 5 items representing other-focused social principles
(adapted from Diekman et al. 2011). The social concern items
were ‘‘serving community,’’ ‘‘altruism,’’ ‘‘helping others,’
‘connecting with others,’’ and ‘‘attending to others’’ (a¼
.77); the instrumental exchange-related items included ‘‘sta-
tus,’’ ‘‘focus on the self,’’ ‘‘independence,’’ ‘‘financial
reward,’’ and ‘‘individualism’’ (a¼.70). All items were pre-
sented in random order, each followed with a 7-point response
scale (1 ¼not at all important,7¼extremely important).
We conducted a mixed analysis of variance with the incivility
(vs. civil) manipulation as a between-subjects factor and the
social (vs. market exchange) principles measure as a within-
subject factor to test for the relative importance of the respec-
tive guiding principles in each situation. As expected, we found
a significant interaction effect, F(1, 137) ¼9.47, p< .01, and
simple effects confirmed that customers who observed incivi-
lity prioritized social over market concerns (M
¼4.46, p< .05), while for customers who observed an
ordinary civil interaction, the default emphasis was on individ-
ual, market exchange issues (M
¼4.45, M
¼4.03, p<
.05). No other effects were significant (all F<1,allp> .77).
Study 1 provides initial support for our theoretical framework
by showing that customers are guided by market concerns in
Table 1. Overview of Studies, Tested Hypotheses, and Results.
Study nIV DV H
1 141 Customer behavior (uncivil vs. polite) Concern prioritization Support N/A N/A N/A N/A
2 202 Customer behavior (uncivil vs. polite) Social concerns, warmth,
emotional support
Support Support Support N/A N/A
3 179 Customer Behavior (Uncivil vs. Polite) Blame
(Employee vs. Not Employee)
Warmth, emotional support N/A Support Support Support N/A
4 174 Customer Behavior (Uncivil vs. Polite)
Employee Reaction (Submissive vs. Uncivil)
Warmth, emotional support N/A Support Support N/A Support
5 128 Employee Reaction to Incivility (Submissive,
Assertive, Uncivil)
Warmth, emotional support,
incivility, service outcomes
N/A Support Support N/A Support
Note. H¼hypothesis; IV ¼independent variable; DV ¼dependent variable.
Figure 1. Overview of main research model: Incivility as a trigger to social customer-employee interaction.
4Journal of Service Research
regular service interactions, whereas witnessing customer inci-
vility induces them to prioritize social concerns. The following
studies build on this framework to investigate the immediate
dynamics of observing incivility in a customer’s interaction
with a service provider.
Study 2: Implications of Heightened Social
Concerns for the Service Interaction
Study 2 promotes two goals: First, it provides a conceptual
replication that observing an uncivil (vs. civil) episode
increases observers’ attention to social concerns. Second, it
documents the immediate consequences of increased, other-
focused social concerns on an observer’s own interaction with
an employee. Our prediction is that the saliency of the social
nature of the interaction induces an observing customer’s feel-
ings of warmth and expression of emotional support for an
employee who experienced incivility by another customer.
Study 2 used the same manipulation as in Study 1 and tested
its effects on feelings of warmth toward and social appreciation
of the employee by participants acting as observers of the
Participants, Design, and Procedure
A sample of 202 students (62.4%female, M
¼21.1) at a
large Dutch university, who received partial course credit for
participation, was randomly assigned to one of the customer
service scenarios described in Study 1. A manipulation check
again confirmed that participants perceived the customer’s
behavior in the incivility condition as significantly less respect-
ful, considerate, and polite (a¼.98) than that in the civil
condition, M
¼4.78, M
¼1.39; t(200) ¼3.06, p<
Dependent Measures
After reading the scenario, participants completed three depen-
dent measures. First, we measured social concerns by asking
participants to describe what came to mind when they read
about the situation in the clothing store. We analyzed these
written responses using the linguistic inquiry and word count
text analysis program (Tausczik and Pennebaker 2010), which
allocates each word in a given text to classifications of words
included in its internal dictionary. To measure participants’
social concerns, we examined the presence of social words
(i.e., words belonging to the social category, such as
‘friendly,’’ ‘‘he/she,’’ ‘‘help,’’ ‘‘interpersonal,’’ ‘person,’
‘talk’’) in their descriptions (Lasaleta, Sedikides, and Vohs
2014). To account for varying lengths of the thought protocols,
we calculated the percentage of social words from the total
number of words.
Second, we captured participants’ feelings of warmth
toward the employee following the protocol of social relation
mapping studies. Participants rated their feelings on a contin-
uous feeling thermometer, from 0 (cold) to 100 (warm; Ijzer-
man and Semin 2009; Weisberg and Rusk 1970).
Third, we assessed emotional support toward the employee
using 5 items on which participants rated the likelihood that
they would offer emotional support to the employee. Sample
items adapted from Rosenbaum and Massiah (2007) were
‘How likely are you to ...cheer up the employee/reassure the
employee/tell the employee not to lose courage/show your
understanding to the employee/sympathize with the
employee?’’ (a¼.81). Table 2 provides an overview of the
key measures employed in Studies 2 to 4.
An independent samples t-test with the amount of social words
as the dependent measure and the incivility manipulation as the
independent variable lent further support to Hypothesis 1;
observers used significantly more social words in the incivility
condition than in the civil condition, M
¼6.68, M
4.84; t(200) ¼17.49, p< .001. A sequential mediation analysis
verified that the increased social concerns led to increased
feelings of warmth and emotional support. The analysis com-
prised bootstrapping (Hayes 2013, PROCESS Model 6) with
1,000 samples and customer behavior (0 ¼civil,1¼uncivil)as
the independent variable, percentage of social words as the first
mediator, warmth as the second mediator, and emotional sup-
port as the outcome variable. The results verify our theory: The
indirect effect (IE) of observed customer behavior through the
use of social words, via warmth, on emotional support was
significant (95%confidence interval [CI] ¼[0.02, 0.10]; IE
Study 2 results provide support for Hypotheses 1 to 2b: Observ-
ers of customer incivility show increased social concerns, and
these concerns manifest themselves as feelings of warmth
toward a targeted employee, leading to the provision of emo-
tional support to the employee. The following studies enhance
Table 2. Means, Standard Deviations, and Cronbach’s aof Key Measures Across Studies.
Study 2 Study 3 Study 4 Study 5
Dependent measure Mean (SD)aMean (SD)aMean (SD)aMean (SD)a
Emotional support 4.17 (1.29) .81 3.82 (1.80) .93 4.24 (1.88) .94 3.88 (1.36) .88
Warmth 68.49 (19.18) N/A 59.11 (23.33) N/A 61.57 (29.75) N/A 57.49 (25.08) N/A
Note. N/A ¼not applicable.
Henkel et al. 5
external validity of these findings and examine boundary con-
ditions to our theory.
Study 3: Blame as a Boundary Condition
Study 3 tested Hypothesis 3 by examining blame as a boundary
condition for increased social appreciation of the employee.
We propose that employee responsibility for the other custom-
er’s uncivil behavior counteracts an observing customer’s
social concerns by reducing feelings of warmth toward the
employee. To enhance external validity, Study 3 tested our
theory with a nonstudent sample from a different cultural
Participants, Design, Procedure, and Measures
U.S. consumers (n¼179, 58%female, M
¼36.1) responded
to an online experiment on Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk);
this online panel offers high-quality and representative data
(Buhrmester, Kwang, and Gosling 2011; Paolacci and Chand-
ler 2014). The study featured a 2 (customer incivility: present
vs. absent) 2 (poor service: employee blame vs. employee no
blame) between-subjects design. Participants read one of the
four randomly assigned scenarios describing an encounter
between a customer and an employee in a retail clothing store.
They were asked to imagine that they were waiting in line for a
fitting room behind another customer who was not granted
access by the employee. The employee no blame condition
revealed that all the changing rooms were occupied; in the
blame condition, not all changing rooms were occupied. In the
civil condition, the customer addressed the clerk in a friendly
tone: ‘‘Excuse me, would you be so kind to let me in?’’ In the
incivility condition, the customer addressed the clerk in a hos-
tile tone: ‘‘What, are you stupid? Let me in already!’’ The
dependent measures assessing emotional support (a¼.93) and
warmth were identical to Study 2 (see Table 2), and all
responses were on 7-point bipolar scales (1 ¼strongly dis-
agree,7¼strongly agree).
The manipulation checks confirmed that participants in
the blame condition perceived the employee as significantly
more to blame, responsible, and at fault for the customer not
getting immediate access to a changing room (a¼.97, Lei,
Dawar, and Gu
¨rhan-Canli 2012) than those in the no blame
condition, M
¼5.11, M
no blame
¼3.10; F(1, 178) ¼
50.98, p< .001. At the same time, they perceived the
employee as more to blame in the civil versus the incivility
condition, M
¼3.69, M
¼4.57; F(1, 178) ¼9.29,
p< .01. Importantly, the interaction effect was not signifi-
cant (p>.84). Likewise, participants perceived the cus-
tomer described in the incivility condition as significantly
less respectful, considerate, and polite (a¼.99) than the
customer in the civil condition, M
¼1.16, M
5.14; F(1, 178) ¼404.74, p< .001. The main effect for
incivility and the interaction effect with blame were both
insignificant (all p>.61).
Participants in the incivility condition reported offering signif-
icantly more emotional support than those in the civil condi-
tion, M
¼4.66, M
¼2.94; F(1, 178) ¼52.15, p< .001,
in further support of Hypothesis 2a. In addition, participants
who witnessed an uncivil customer reported more warmth
¼69.60) toward the employee than those who wit-
nessed a civil customer, M
¼48.36; F(1, 178) ¼47.26, p<
.001, in further support of Hypothesis 2b. The main effects of
blame were not significant for both emotional support and
warmth (all p> .32), and these effects were qualified by a
marginally significant interaction effect on warmth, F(1, 178)
¼2.94, p¼.088.
In support of Hypothesis 3, an analysis of simple main
effects revealed that in the uncivil customer condition, partici-
pants ascribed almost 10 scale points less warmth to the
employee in the blame condition, M
¼65.44, M
no blame
¼73.84; F(1, 88) ¼3.50, p¼.065, whereas there was no
difference in the civil condition, M
¼49.43, M
no blame
47.19; F(1, 87) ¼.08, p> .77. A test of the moderated media-
tion prediction, with customer behavior (0 ¼civil,1¼uncivil)
as the independent variable, warmth as the mediator, blame as
the moderator, and emotional support as the dependent vari-
able, using bootstrapping with 1,000 samples (Hayes 2013,
PROCESS Model 7), confirmed the significant moderating
effect of blame (90%CI
uncivil blame
[20.90, 0.37]), with
significant IEs for both levels of the moderator (90%CI
no blame
[0.94, 1.59]; IE ¼1.25; 90%CI
[0.39, 1.13]; IE ¼0.75).
Thus, observers discounted warmth inferences when they
blamed the employee for a service failure that preceded an
observed uncivil interaction.
Study 3 affords further support to Hypotheses 2a and 2b: Per-
ceived warmth toward an employee mediates the effect, such
that observers of customer incivility offer emotional support to
employees. In addition, Study 3 offers evidence of a moderated
mediation, as proposed by Hypothesis 3: Blame attenuates the
increase of social concerns. Observing customers who hold an
employee to blame for an uncivil customer’s behavior are less
likely to provide emotional support.
As a final leg of our theory, Hypothesis 4 predicts effects of
employees’ reactions to customer incivility on observers’ emo-
tional and behavioral reactions to a targeted employee. Study 4
tests Hypothesis 4 in a controlled setting, and Study 5 offers
increased external validity to this test by comparing the effects
of different employee reactions on observers’ reactions.
Study 4: Employee Reaction as a Boundary
Study 4 builds on and extends Study 3 by using as stimulus an
uncivil incident that arose from a service failure caused by the
employee. In addition, Study 4 recognizes potential variations
6Journal of Service Research
in the degree of hostility in a customer’s uncivil behavior, by
adding a comparison of two levels of customer incivility to the
civil baseline condition. Comparing a milder form of incivility
(rudeness) with a more hostile form (aggressiveness) adds
robustness to our test.
Participants, Design, and Procedure
A group of 174 U.S. consumers (61%female, M
recruited from MTurk, participated in an experiment, with a 3
(customer incivility: rude vs. aggressive vs. civil) 2
(employee response: polite vs. uncivil) full-factorial,
between-subjects design. The instructions asked participants
to envision a situation of waiting in line at a Starbucks and
observing another customer interacting with an employee. In
the rude incivility condition, the customer responded to receiv-
ing coffee in a condescending tone: ‘‘I won’t drink that. I asked
for the coffee with milk foam, not cream. Can you make me the
coffee the way I asked for?’’ In the aggressive incivility con-
dition, the customer replied in a hostile tone ‘‘Are you stupid? I
said milk foam and NOT CREAM!Dealing with incompetent
employees like you really pisses me off!Now, make me the
right one!’ In the civil condition, the customer merely stated in
a friendly tone: ‘‘Thanks, but I think you accidentally made the
coffee with cream instead of milk foam. Would you please be
so kind to fix me the right one?’
The scenarios also included a manipulation of the employee
response. In the employee polite reaction condition,the
employee took back the coffee and replied, ‘‘I am really sorry;
of course I will fix you another one right away.’’ In the
employee uncivil reaction condition, the employee said, ‘‘Take
it or leave it. If you wanna have another one, line up again.’’
Dependent measures were identical to Study 3 (see Table 2).
Manipulation checks with planned contrasts confirmed that
participants rated the customer as significantly less respectful,
considerate, and polite (a¼.98) in the aggressive incivility
condition (M
¼1.39) than in the rude incivility condition,
¼2.21; F(1, 168) ¼9.19, p< .01, and the civil condition,
¼5.36; F(1, 168) ¼132.01, p< .001. Participants also
rated the customer as more polite in the uncivil employee reac-
tion condition than in the civil reaction condition, M
¼3.10; F(1, 168) ¼4.60, p< .05. The interaction effect
between customer incivility and employee response was insig-
nificant (p>.48). Participants perceived the customer in the
rude incivility condition as significantly more hostile (offen-
sive, aggressive, intended to offend the employee, a¼.96)
than in the civil condition (M
¼4.50, M
¼1.82, p<
.001) but as significantly less hostile than in the aggressive
incivility condition (M
¼5.63, p< .001). The main effect
for employee reaction and the interaction effect with customer
incivility were both insignificant (all p>.59).
Participants also rated the employee as significantly more
respectful, considerate, and polite (a¼.99) in the civil condi-
tion than in the incivility condition, M
¼5.98, M
2.25; F(1, 168) ¼266.30, p< .001. However, the interaction
effect was significant (p<.01), such that participants perceived
the employee as equally polite in the polite reaction condition
(p>.69) but as significantly more polite when the customer
was aggressive (M¼3.16) rather than merely rude (M¼1.90,
p<.01) or civil (M¼1.58, p<.001), possibly reflecting a
contrast effect in which the aggressive customer made the
employee appear more polite (Bless and Schwarz 2010). The
difference between the rude incivility and the civil condition in
perceived employee politeness was not significant (p>.68).
The results offer further support for Hypothesis 2a, extending
our previous results to a different service context; participants
in the aggressive incivility condition reported that they would
give the employee significantly higher emotional support than
those in the rude incivility condition, M
¼5.06 vs. M
4.30; F(1, 167) ¼9.69, p< .01, and reported emotional support
in both incivility conditions was significantly higher than in the
civil condition, M
¼3.34; F(1, 167) ¼15.17, p< .001.
The results also offer support for Hypothesis 4; participants
reported they would offer significantly less emotional support
to the employee in the employee uncivil reaction condition,
¼5.22, M
¼3.25; F(1, 167) ¼177.89, p< .001.
The interaction effect between customer incivility and
employee response was significant, F(2, 167) ¼21.33, p<
.01. A bootstrapping procedure with 1,000 samples supported
the moderated mediation effect of employee reaction to obser-
ving aggressive (vs. rude) customer incivility on emotional
support through feelings of warmth (95%CI [0.83, 2.09]; IE
¼1.45; Preacher, Rucker, and Hayes 2007, PROCESS Model
8). Likewise, moderated mediation was significant when obser-
ving rude (vs. civil) customer behavior (95%CI [0.02, 1.18]; IE
¼0.48). An uncivil employee response had a negative effect on
observers’ reactions, and observing customers were less likely
to report they would provide emotional support to the
employee, in support of Hypothesis 4.
Study 4 confirms that an employee who reacts in a polite way to
an uncivil customer may be acting in his or her own best inter-
est; the study shows that observing customers are more likely to
offer emotional support to a polite employee. In contrast,
employees reciprocating incivility lose the potential of receiv-
ing social support from observing customers. Thus, employees
who reciprocate incivility not only violate the implicit service
protocol for polite behavior but also deprive themselves of
potential emotional support from other customers who observe
the interaction. These findings shed new light on the merit of
emotional labor (Rafaeli and Sutton 1987). Prior research has
focused on the troubling effects of emotional labor on employ-
ees, in terms of employee burnout and emotional exhaustion
(Brotheridge and Grandey 2002); our analysis complements
these findings by showing that the investment of effort in
responding politely to an uncivil customer can benefit employ-
ees’ psychological well-being. Emotional labor increases the
Henkel et al. 7
likelihood that observing customers will offer emotional sup-
port and reduces the chances that they will also engage in
uncivil behavior.
The effect of customer incivility on other customers also
raises a question about potential training programs. Service
organizations need policies that promote multiple criteria
(e.g., the firm’s bottom line, employee well-being, customer
satisfaction). A polite employee response is presumed benefi-
cial in terms of observers’ emotional and behavioral reactions;
however, the realm of polite employee responses to customer
incivility includes options beyond standard subservience, and
their implications are important to discuss.
First, it is possible to reprimand a customer in a polite way
(van Jaarsveld, Walker, and Skarlicki 2010): An employee can
respond to customer incivility politely but with an assertive
rather than a submissive component. Second, if a reprimand
does not have the desired effect on an uncivil customer, a
plausible service policy may be ‘‘three strikes and you’re out,’
threatening to terminate the relationship with selected uncivil
customers (Shin, Sudhir, and Yoon 2012). Such policies can
empower employees, encouraging polite responses to a cus-
tomer who fails to comply with previous reprimands. Our final
study tests the potential effects of such responses. In Study 5,
both alternative employee responses are delivered in a polite
way, and we expect them to generate the same levels of warmth
and emotional support as a standard, submissive polite
response. Thus, we do not formulate specific hypotheses but
test the effects of polite employee responses in an exploratory
manner, while also testing their implications for a battery of
service-relevant outcomes.
Study 5: Nonsubservient Employee
Responses to Customer Incivility
Study 5 aims to lend further support to Hypothesis 4 and to
show the undesirable effects of uncivil employee responses on
observing customers, when the employee is not responsible
for a service failure. Study 5 also extends the previous studies,
by testing effects of alternative employee reaction strategies
on observers, and adds an assessment of effects beyond the
warmth and emotional support of observers, thus document-
ing effects on global service outcomes and suggesting con-
crete implications for firms’ bottom line. Thus, Study 5
extends the focus of Studies 3 and 4 on boundary conditions
to observers’ prosocial behavior toward employees to provide
initial evidence of the implications of our theory for the ser-
vice firm at large.
Participants, Design, and Procedure
Students at a large Dutch university of applied sciences (n¼
128, 31.3%female, M
¼20.9) were asked to watch an
uncivil customer service interaction and to report their reac-
tions. To create a realistic context and ensure high internal
validity and full control of the dynamic emotional cues, we
used videotaped service interactions (Scott, Mende, and Bolton
2013). The videos were set in a retail store and showed a
customer acting in an uncivil way while returning some
recently bought merchandise. There were four videotapes
showing four conditions of employee reactions to customer
incivility (polite and submissive, uncivil, polite and assertive,
and politely asking the uncivil customer to leave). Participants
were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions and asked
to imagine themselves in the store watching the situation in the
video and then to answer a series of questions.
A professional production company produced the videos in
a shoe store, and professional actors played the role of the
customer. The video showed the interaction of an uncivil cus-
tomer with an employee from the perspective of an observing
customer. To mitigate gender effects, both the customer and the
employee were female. There were four versions of the video,
which created the manipulation of the employee reaction:
(1) polite and submissive response, with the employee exer-
cising emotional labor (submissive condition); (2) polite and
assertive response, with the employee reprimanding the cus-
tomer (reprimand condition); (3) polite and assertive
response, with the employee reprimanding the customer for
the disrespectful behavior and demanding she leave the
store (leave condition); and (4) impolite response, with the
employee responding rudely, reciprocating the customer
incivility (uncivil condition). All videos were approximately
1 minute long. The full transcript of the four clips is avail-
able in the Online Appendix.
As manipulation checks, we measured perceived cus-
tomer politeness (similar to the previous studies) and per-
ceived employee politeness. We also conducted a pretest
examining the outcome favorability
for the uncivil cus-
tomer’s service interaction across the four employee reac-
tions (Hui et al. 2004). Table 3 reports the corresponding
measurement items and statistics. Planned contrasts con-
firmed that participants perceived the employee as signifi-
cantly less respectful in the uncivil condition than in the
other three (polite) response conditions (see Table 4).
Table 4 shows that the participants perceived the customer
as consistently uncivil across conditions, while they rated
the outcomes of the interaction as significantly least favor-
able in the leave condition and most favorable in the rep-
rimand and submissive conditions.
Dependent Measures
After watching the video clip, participants responded to the
same measure as in Studies 2 and 3, reporting the likelihood
they would offer emotional support and how much warmth they
felt toward the employee. They also responded to a battery of
service-related measures associated with the firm’s bottom
line, including a measure of the overall service experience
(adapted from Porath, MacInnis, and Folkes 2011), overall
perceived service quality (Brady and Cronin 2001), repurchase
likelihood (Palmatier et al. 2009), net promoter score (Reich-
held 2003), and employee competence (Thompson and Ince
2013). Finally, they indicated the minimum percentage
8Journal of Service Research
discount they would require to revisit the store (based on
Palmatier, Scheer, and Steenkamp 2007). Table 3 provides an
overview of all scale items and statistics.
The results again confirm that feelings of warmth toward the
employee determine the emotional support an observer of cus-
tomer incivility is likely to offer the employee. A mediation
analysis with bootstrapping on 1,000 samples replicated the
role of warmth (M
¼61.41, M
¼41.25) in determin-
ing customer emotional support (M
¼3.49, M
4.06) when comparing the polite and uncivil employee reac-
tions. The IE of the employee’s response (0 ¼civil,1¼
uncivil) through warmth on emotional support was significant
(95%CI [0.85, 0.25]; IE ¼0.49), while the direct effect
was not. Thus, warmth fully mediated the path from uncivil
versus polite employee behavior to emotional support. Post hoc
tests revealed no significant differences across the three polite
conditions in terms of warmth (e.g., M
¼63.47, M
¼66.83, all p> .35) or emotional support (M
¼3.96, all p> .70).
Table 4 summarizes the effects of the different reaction
strategies on the global service-relevant measures. We repli-
cated the individual-level results reported in Study 4, such that
an uncivil employee response produced the most negative
effects on observing customers and thus is most likely to hurt
(future) business. However, the normative, submissive
response was not superior to a polite reprimand; with most
measures, it did not even outperform the reprimand in which
the customer was asked to leave.
As Table 4 shows, a polite reprimand did not create signif-
icantly more harm to the service experience, as overall service
was not evaluated significantly better following a polite
response, and neither purchase intentions nor the net promoter
score was significantly higher when the employee responded in
a submissive way than by politely reprimanding the customer.
Moreover, participants perceived the employee as significantly
more competent when reprimanding the customer than when
responding in a polite and submissive manner. A follow-up
bootstrapping analysis with 1,000 samples revealed that com-
petence mediated the path from employee reaction (polite and
submissive ¼0, reprimanding ¼1) to an observer’s perceived
service quality, as indicated by the significant IEs (95%CI
vs. submissive
[0.06, 0.53]; IE ¼0.27; 95%CI
reprimand vs. submissive
[0.03, 0.36]; IE ¼0.17).
Study 5 tests a viable alternative reaction for employees faced
with customer incivility and shows that reprimanding uncivil
customers does not harm the service organization but enables
employees to reap the benefits of a subsequent social interac-
tion in which an observer is likely to offer them emotional
support. The study shows that another customer’s incivility
leads to comparable levels of warmth and emotional support
toward an affected employee, whether the employee reacts
with a polite, assertive reprimand or a polite, submissive reac-
tion. Moreover, customers perceive the employee as more com-
petent when reprimanding a customer than when simply
Table 3. Overview of Manipulation Checks and Service-Related Mea-
surement Scales Employed in Study 5.
Measurement scale aMean (SD)
Manipulation checks
Customer politeness .93 1.61 (1.18)
The customer’s behavior was respectful
The customer’s behavior was considerate
The customer’s behavior was polite
Employee politeness .93 4.39 (1.98)
The employee’s behavior was respectful
The employee’s behavior was considerate
The employee’s behavior was polite
Outcome favorability .76 4.03 (0.83)
The customer’s behavior negatively affects
what she gets out of the transaction
The outcomes of this transaction are
favorable for the customer
How satisfied do you think the customer
will be with the outcomes of the interaction?
Service-related outcomes
Employee competence
.86 3.41 (1.42)
How competent is the employee?
How knowledgeable is the employee?
How much expertise has the employee to
offer to customers?
How qualified is the employee?
Harm service experience .89 4.01 (1.49)
The customer-employee interaction would
harm my service experience
The customer-employee interaction would
disturb my service experience
The customer-employee interaction would
ruin the atmosphere for me
Service generalizations .83 3.85 (1.50)
I would say that the store described in the
scenario provides superior service
I believe the store described in the scenario
provides excellent service
The situation described in the store can be
described as an example of bad service
Future purchase intentions .75 4.03 (1.49)
I would likely buy from this store in the
I would come back to that store
Net promoter score
N/A 4.63 (2.52)
How likely would you be to recommend
that store to a friend or colleague?
Required percentage discount
N/A 47.74 (29.57)
What is the minimum required discount for
you to return to this store?
Note. All constructs were assessed on 7-point Likert-type scales (1 ¼strongly
disagree,7¼strongly agree), if not stated otherwise.
Assessed on a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 ¼not ...,7¼very ...).
Assessed on a 10-point Likert-type scale (1 ¼very unlikely,10¼very likely).
Assessed using a 0% to 100% scale in 5% increments. For a meaningful com-
parison, we subtracted the mean of the civil baseline condition from each of the
uncivil conditions.
Henkel et al. 9
staying polite and ‘‘smiling away’’ the incivility. These note-
worthy findings suggest that service managers can help
employees avoid the negative psychological and physical
health consequences that emotional labor presumably creates
(Grandey, Dickter, and Sin 2004) by allowing or encouraging
them to politely reprimand uncivil customers. The only type of
employee behavior that seems harmful to the organization is an
uncivil employee reaction, as Study 4 also shows.
General Discussion
Our theoretical starting point was that customers, whose
thoughts and actions in regular service interactions are primar-
ily guided by market concerns, enact social concerns when they
observe other customers behaving in an uncivil way toward an
employee. Our theory proposes, and our findings confirm that
understanding whether and when customers focus on social or
market concerns is of theoretical and practical interest. Theo-
retically, the conceptual distinction between social and market
concerns suggests that service interactions can follow diverse
behavioral scripts. Our empirical findings show that local trig-
gers prescribe which script a specific service interaction may
follow. Across five studies, we find consistent evidence that an
incident of customer incivility evokes prosocial rather than
antisocial reactions in observing customers. That is, incivility
has the power to disrupt a scripted (market oriented) service
interaction and shift the focus from market to social concerns.
We thus contribute to literature on the social nature of service
interactions (Heyman and Ariely 2004; Solomon et al. 1985) by
identifying triggers that can transform a pure marketplace inter-
action into a more social one.
Our work also untangles the immediate dynamics of cus-
tomer incivility in a face-to-face service encounter (Groth and
Grandey 2012; Harris and Reynolds 2003; Schilpzand, De
Pater, and Erez 2016; van Jaarsveld, Walker, and Skarlicki
2010). As all our studies are experimental, we establish
cause-and-effect dynamics of customer incivility. Prior
research on incivility in customer service has tended to rely
on self-reported, isolated incidents, with limited connections
with the broader service context and the social nature of service
interactions. Our studies document that dysfunctional customer
behavior prompts positive reactions from bystanders to
employees in a variety of service contexts and show why such
effects do or do not appear in some situations, specifically
situations in which an employee is held accountable for an
instance of incivility.
The prosocial observer reactions we find also challenge a
central tenet of incivility research that postulates that uncivil
acts usually spill over to infect observers (Andersson and Pear-
son 1999). Instead, we demonstrate that customers observing
incivility by other customers may experience prosocial feel-
ings toward the target and provide emotional support to an
employee targeted by incivility from another customer. We
identify feelings of warmth as the underlying mechanism and
as pivotal to the increase in customers’ prosocial tendencies
when witnessing other customers’ incivility. Thus, observers
offer a potential source of alleviation for employees. Our find-
ings are in line with the positive transformative potential of
service interactions for employee well-being, as proposed by
transformative service research (Anderson and Ostrom 2015),
and our studies emphasize the need to move beyond a purely
negative image of customers as origins and causes of problems
for service employees (e.g., Kern and Grandey 2009; Rafaeli
et al. 2012; van Jaarsveld, Walker, and Skarlicki 2010; Walker,
van Jaarsveld, and Skarlicki 2013).
Our work also identifies some boundaries on the goodwill of
customers to employees. Although an incivility incident prior-
itizes social concern in observers, this other focus does not
translate into increased feelings of warmth toward the employee,
if the latter is not deserving of support from the observer’s
perspective (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas 2010). If the
employee is to blame for a service failure that gave rise to
customer incivility, an observing customer is less likely to feel
warmth or offer emotional support. We thus contribute to liter-
ature on blame attributions in service failure episodes by show-
ing that such attributions affect the social dynamics in a service
interaction (Bitner 1990; Gelbrich 2010; Joireman et al. 2013;
Strizhakova, Tsarenko, and Ruth 2012).
Table 4. Study 5: The Effect of Different Employee Reactions on Observing Customers’ Service Relevant Reactions.
Dependent measure F
Manipulation checks
Employee politeness 21.18*** 2.56
Customer politeness 1.19 1.84
Outcome favorability 102.42*** 4.28
Service-related outcomes
Employee competence 11.56*** 2.49
Harm service experience 7.84*** 4.81
Service evaluation 13.92*** 2.89
Net promoter score 4.90*** 3.66
Future purchase intentions 5.40*** 2.59
Required percentage discount over baseline 2.19* 17.2
Means with identical superscripts are not significantly different from each other (all p>.1).
***p< .01. **p< .05. *p<.1.
10 Journal of Service Research
Another contribution of our work lies in unpacking the inter-
active nature of service interactions and illuminating the effi-
cacy of different employee reaction tactics to determine the
support they elicit from the social environment. Our work
sheds new light on emotional labor, suggesting potentially pos-
itive effects of assertive but polite employee reprimands on
employee well-being (e.g., Brotheridge and Grandey 2002;
Grandey, Kern, and Frone 2007). A polite but assertive repri-
mand is not inferior to ‘‘pure and complete’’ emotional labor
subservience and may even seem superior in terms of perceived
employee competence. Additional research could further
explore whether, when, and where employees can personally
gain from different reaction patterns to uncivil customers.
By accounting for uncivil employee reactions (Walker, van
Jaarsveld, and Skarlicki 2013), we also shed light on the spread
of incivility in a customer service context: An employee who
reciprocates incivility may infect observing customers with
cold and socially distant feelings and may cause them to
instigate further incivility (Magee and Smith 2013). These
findings suggest that what may seem like a direct spillover
effect from one customer to another is in fact a secondary
spiral from one customer through the employee’s reaction to
the second customer (Andersson and Pearson 1999). The
emergence of negative spillover effects may be at least par-
tially under the control of the employee and is clearly worthy
of further research.
Managerial Implications
The instrumental, self-focused frame of mind presumed to typi-
cally inhabit customers in regular service interactions, often cul-
minates in detrimental health consequences for frontline
employees (e.g., Cortina et al. 2001) and negative bottom-line
effects for service organizations (e.g., Pearson and Porath 2009).
Our findings demonstrate triggers that can lead customers to be
more attuned to social concerns in marketplace environments
and specifically the human side of employees. Managers should
acknowledge the default guiding principles of customers and
appreciate the power of the (social) service environment to shift
customers’ priorities. A wide range of elements is conceivable to
emphasize the social nature of a service interaction and the
service employee. Our findings suggest concrete prescriptions
on designing service elements (e.g., employee reaction, servi-
cescape) in order for employees to benefit from increased social
concerns in observers of customer incivility.
Customer incivility is a discomforting element of frontline
service work and a burden to employees, managers, and, poten-
tially, the firm. The dynamic nature of service interactions also
means that the problem is rarely restricted to individual, iso-
lated episodes of incivility. Instead, our results suggest that
incivility has reliable effects on other people, such that an
uncivil episode has the potential to affect observers’ experience
of warmth and provision of emotional support toward the
employee. Social support is important to employees, as a buffer
against counterproductive workplace behavior and employee
burnout (Halbesleben 2006; Sakurai and Jex 2012). Employees
can thrive when they recognize customers as potential sources
of alleviation rather than as aggravators of the negative effects
of incivility. Observers may go out of their way to cheer up and
reassure employees, though it is ultimately the responsibility of
the employee to bring out these human aspects in a service
interaction. Employees whose internal models of customer ser-
vice (e.g., Di Mascio 2010) recognize the potential benefits of
human interactions with customers are best positioned to
receive social support from them. Adopting such a view of
customers may even promote a self-fulfilling prophecy, in
which customers perceive well-intentioned employees as warm
and their prosocial acts help employees in need. Our results
thus show how recovery at work might be enforced in practice
by replenishing customer interactions after a prioritization of
social concerns (Lilius 2012).
Our results also have important ramifications for training
and coaching employees. A spontaneous reaction to customer
incivility is to retaliate (van Jaarsveld, Walker, and Skarlicki
2010), though following such instincts is hazardous for
employees, because they can induce a spiral of incivility. That
is, the uncivil customer provokes an uncivil response from an
employee, whose incivility, in turn, prompts observing custom-
ers to behave uncivilly toward this employee too. Becoming a
repeated target of incivility likely triggers a vicious cycle that
can lead to further deterioration of customer service (e.g., van
Jaarsveld, Walker, and Skarlicki 2010), employee depletion
(e.g., Baranik et al. 2014), and counterproductive workplace
behaviors. Such effects on employees, colleagues, managers,
and firms are hazardous (e.g., Sliter, Sliter, and Jex 2012).
Training employees to react appropriately to customer incivi-
lity thus should be a priority for service managers to preserve
employee well-being and firm outcomes. Our research
uncovers polite reprimands as a particularly promising tactic
that can benefit both the individual employee and the firm.
The benefits in practice are 4-fold. First, well-trained
employees who issue polite reprimands elicit more positive
service-related evaluations and purchase intentions from obser-
ving customers. Second, the alternative reaction to customer
incivility does not require emotional labor, thus reducing the
emotional toll of frontline service and leaving the employee
with more resources to devote to job tasks (Rafaeli et al. 2012).
Third, this alternative reduces the risk that the employee will
reciprocate incivility, which benefits the firm’s bottom line.
Fourth, a polite reprimand still helps observing customers
prioritize social concerns in the service interaction and provide
emotional support to employees.
The positive customer reactions that our studies demonstrate
are also important for managers who want to estimate the true
costs of customer incivility for their organization. Customer-
employee interactions occur in a social context and attempts to
capture the negative bottom-line effects of incivility (e.g., Pear-
son and Porath 2009) are likely over rather than underesti-
mated. A single uncivil customer episode has immediate
negative consequences on employee well-being and job perfor-
mance, but interventions of third-party customers may counter-
act these effects by offering emotional support.
Henkel et al. 11
The benefit obtained from other customers also has impor-
tant implications for servicescape designs. From a customer
incivility perspective, it is preferable for employee well-
being to keep waiting customers in physical proximity rather
than serving them in isolation. In industries that require privacy
(e.g., banking, hospitals), such proximity would be challen-
ging; supervisors in these sectors have a particular responsibil-
ity to train employees to deal with customer incivility, because
the potential for receiving emotional support from observers is
limited. Such environments may be particularly fertile grounds
for incivility to grow, in that customers are less likely to expe-
rience warmth toward targeted employees and less prone to go
out of their way to comfort them.
Limitations and Further Research
As with any research, our investigation is not without limita-
tions. Our central goal was to document the proposed relation-
ships in a controlled setting, so that we could identify the
underlying mechanism and boundary conditions for the posi-
tive effects of customer incivility on the prosocial tendencies of
observing customers toward affected employees. Therefore, we
strived for diverse samples and methods and collected data in
the lab and online in different cultural settings to add robust-
ness to our results. Additional studies are essential, however, to
further increase external validity. All our data rely on imagined
interactions and roles. Field data regarding how customer inci-
vility shapes observers’ social concerns in live service interac-
tions would further validate our theory.
Another limitation of our work is the focus on customer
incivility as a disruptor of a scripted service encounter that
leads observing customers to prioritize social concerns and act
accordingly toward employees. Arguably, other triggers could
lead to similar transitions. An exciting avenue for research
might be to identify such triggers, their effects, and their
boundary conditions. Some triggers might stimulate a stronger
social focus in service employees; identifying these triggers
and their effects on employee behavior and subsequent organi-
zational outcomes would be a fruitful direction. For example,
Rafaeli (1989) suggests that social conversations with custom-
ers serve as triggers to social control and a social focus by
customers. However, prioritizing social concerns may not
always be positive. For example, employees might be manipu-
lated through social interactions to provide preferential service
to undeserving customers (e.g., Brady, Voorhees, and Brusco
2012). The boundaries to the positive effects of focusing on the
social essence of service interactions are therefore another
angle for future research.
In our investigation of uncivil customer incidents, we alter-
nate the employee’s responsibility for a service failure. As we
show in Study 3, the effects of a heightened social focus and
increased emotional support in response to witnessing incivility
hold even if the employee has caused a service failure. Addi-
tional studies might also examine how different motivations for
uncivil customer behavior affect observers. Perhaps the sever-
ity of the service failure caused by the employee moderates the
effects we propose. Service failures beyond a certain severity
level or failures that affect the observer directly might not
evoke supportive behavior in the observing customer. For
example, if observers perceive an uncivil customer’s behavior
as strengthening his or her bargaining position, they may be
more inclined to mimic that behavior (i.e., prioritizing market-
related concerns over social concerns). Similar effects may
occur when observers experience lower distributive, proce-
dural, or interactional justice or interact with large rather than
small service firms (Wirtz and McColl-Kennedy 2010).
Our work adds to the known beneficial effects of emotional
support from coworkers and supervisors (Halbesleben 2006)
the idea that customers can be a source of social support and
well-being. Customer emotional support is likely more com-
primary interaction partners for employees. Another research
avenue might investigate alternative routes that service provi-
ders can use to elicit supportive customer behaviors. Personal-
ity characteristics and situational issues might determine which
customers are more or less inclined to offer emotional support.
Future research may further challenge the widely held belief
that positive emotional displays are a universal requirement for
an optimal service delivery (Rafaeli et al. 2016). Not even
uncivil employee behavior may be as unequivocally harmful
across different cultures and throughout all service organiza-
tions. For example, in France, an uncivil employee response
might produce more positive effects than in the American and
Dutch settings that we studied (Grandey et al. 2010). Further-
more, a strategic alignment of employee behavior with the
service organization’s brand positioning produces the most
favorable brand evaluations (Sirianni et al. 2013). A budget
service brand’s image, defined by cost savings and a curt com-
munication style with customers, might even benefit from less
civil employee responses to customer incivility.
Authors’ Note
This article is based on the first author’s dissertation.
The authors thank participants at the 2014 EMAC doctoral colloquium
advanced track in consumer behavior as well as participants at the
2014 Frontiers in Service Conference for their helpful comments. The
authors also want to express their gratitude to the editor and the review
team for their immense dedication to improving this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to
the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
Supplemental Material
The online appendices are available at
12 Journal of Service Research
1. We follow prior research and define incivility as all forms of rude,
disrespectful, condescending, or degrading customer behaviors
toward an employee (Cortina et al. 2001; Porath, MacInnis, and
Folkes 2011). Prior studies investigating the dark side of customer
service interactions have used other, partly overlapping terms and
definitions (for overviews, see Fisk et al. 2010; Harris and Rey-
nolds 2003).
2. We assessed outcome favorability on a separate sample of
51 students who watched all four videos in randomized order;
we assessed differences with a repeated measures analysis of
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Author Biographies
Alexander P. Henkel is a postdoctoral research fellow at the faculty
of Management, Science, and Technology at the Open University of
the Netherlands. He is also affiliated with the Business Intelligence
and Smart Services (BISS) Institute in Heerlen, the Netherlands.
Johannes Boegershausen is a doctoral student at the Sauder School
of Business, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
Anat Rafaeli is a professor of organizational behavior and holds the
Yigal Alon Chair for the Study of People at Work in the Technion—
Israel Institute of Technology.
Jos Lemmink is a professor of marketing and holds the Canon-Oce´
Endowed Chair in Business Services Innovation at the School of
Business and Economics of Maastricht University, the Netherlands.
He is also one of the founders of the Service Science Factory and
affiliated with the Business Intelligence and Smart Services Institute
(BISS) in Heerlen, the Netherlands.
Henkel et al. 15
... More recent studies have examined customer reactions to observing another customer mistreating an employee. Customers who witness mistreatment in settings like clothing stores, fast food restaurants and coffee shops, tend to show increased warmth towards the mistreated employee, offering emotional support and providing more positive evaluations of the target employee (Henkel et al., 2017). ...
Purpose The authors systematically review empirical dyadic service encounter research published in top-tier journals between 1972 and 2022. Design/methodology/approach The authors employed bibliometric techniques, co-citation analysis and bibliographic coupling analysis to map schools of thought and research frontiers within the dyadic service encounter literature. In total, the authors analyzed 155 articles. To ensure inclusion of high-quality research, the authors screened articles from 139 journals with “4” or “4*” ratings on the 2021 Chartered Association of Business Schools (ABS) journal list, in addition to articles published in three service sector-specific journals: Journal of Service Management, Journal of Services Marketing and Journal of Service Theory and Practice . Findings The authors' co-citation analysis identified four distinct clusters within the dyadic service encounter literature: (1) shaping and explaining service encounters; (2) emotions in service work; (3) modeling, manipulating and measuring encounter service quality and (4) emotional labor and regulation in dyadic service encounters. Furthermore, the authors' bibliographic coupling analysis generated three research clusters: (1) service encounter characteristics; (2) emotions and emotional labor and (3) service encounter interaction content. Originality/value The authors' comprehensive review synthesizes knowledge, summarizing similarities among research clusters within the service encounter realm. Noteworthy are research clusters that clarify the emotion-based underpinnings and reciprocal nature of behaviors and emotions within dyadic encounters. By conducting complementary bibliometric analyses, the authors trace the evolution of the service encounter literature, providing an overview of the present state of dyadic service encounter research. These analyses offer valuable insights into the current landscape of the field, identifying future dyadic service encounter research opportunities.
... Thus, the roles of the actor and target likely vary over time, with previous experiences informing future expectations and social exchange. Similarly, the role of by-standers in episodes of IAR needs to be accounted for to understand the implications of IAR strategies for organizations overall (Henkel et al., 2017). ...
Individuals often attempt to influence the affective states of others in the workplace. Such interpersonal affect regulation (IAR) occurs across social settings that are characterized by distinct roles and relationships between actors and targets. However, it is unclear whether and how IAR processes and outcomes differ across settings as pertinent research has developed in separate organizational literatures with different research traditions that have thus far not been compared or integrated. In addition, despite the social nature of IAR, the types of relationships between the actor engaging in IAR and the target of IAR have rarely been considered in prior research. Here, we present an integrative framework to establish why and how social roles at work shape motivation, strategies, and affective outcomes of IAR across three core actor-target configurations in organizations. Specifically, we theorize how internal-vertical, internal-horizontal, and external social role configurations influence IAR. We provide integrative insights into the nature and implications of IAR in organizations and generate a comprehensive agenda for future research on IAR.
... Customer incivility impairs employees' short-and long-term emotional health (Li et al., 2017;Sliter & Jones, 2015). Thus, employees who experience customer incivility can deplete resources by coping with negative emotions, which may trigger emotional exhaustion (Donahue et al., 2012;Henkel et al., 2017). However, when individuals involuntarily adjust their emotions, a sense of disharmony is likely to occur (Beal et al., 2006). ...
Previous studies have focused on the internal factors of employee cheating behavior, but neglected the external factors, such as customer attitudes and behavior. Based on the conservation of resources theory, this study explores how customer incivility affects employee cheating behavior through harmonious passion and discusses the moderating role of employee rumination in the relationship between customer incivility and harmonious passion. Data was collected from 298 supervisor-subordinate dyads of 4- and 5-star hotels in China. The results show that customer incivility indirectly affects employee cheating behavior, while harmonious passion intermediates the process. Rumination moderates the relationship between customer incivility and harmonious passion, as well as the intermediary role of harmonious passion in the relationship between customer incivility and employee cheating. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.
... Employee affective displays in service encounters can be positive, neutral, and apologetic (Cheshin, Amit, and van Kleef 2018;Henkel et al. 2017;Herzig et al. 2016). We propose that such employee affective displays can help to explain further variance in customer satisfaction over and above customer affective displays for two reasons. ...
Full-text available
This study introduces affect-as-information theory to the service encounter context and advances that customer and employee affective displays during a service encounter together estimate post-encounter customer satisfaction (CSAT). A large-scale dataset of 23,645 real-life text-based (i.e., chat) service encounters with a total of 301,280 genuine messages written by customers and employees was used to test our hypotheses. Automatic sentiment analysis was deployed to assess the affective displays of customers and employees in every individual text message as a service encounter unfolded. Our findings confirm that in addition to customers' overall (mean) affective display, peak (i.e., highest positive or least negative) and end (final) affective displays explain additional variance in satisfaction. Further, as customer displays may not fully capture their satisfaction process and employees understand the service quality they deliver, we propose and confirm that service employee displayed affect explains further variance in CSAT. Our analyses also find that the predictive power of affective displays is more pronounced in service failure than non-failure encounters. Together, these findings show that automatic monitoring beyond operational variables and customer overall affect (i.e., adding customer peak and end, and employee affective displays) can expedite the evaluation of CSAT immediately upon completion of a service encounter. 2
... We conceptualize triads as a structural phenomenon and begin our discussion with the focal dyad for which four possible constellations can be distinguished in the business-to-customer domain: a customer transgressing against another customer (customer-to-customer conflicts; Brief et al. 2005) or against an employee (customer incivility; Henkel et al. 2017), and an employee transgressing against a customer (service failure and recovery; Gelbrich and Roschk 2011) or another employee (employee incivility; Porath, MacInnis, and Folkes 2011). The four constellations can be seen as prototypical instances of the focal dyad. ...
The social nature of customer experiences creates complex and potentially detrimental dynamics in failure situations, such as when other customers side with the complainer or the firm. The present research is the first to analyze such coalitions and their consequences. We conceptualize a triad composed of a complainer, a service employee, and one or multiple others as a third actor. A field study of consumer complaints on social media shows that coalitions occur in 32% of cases, negatively shifting the affective tone of an online conversation from approximately neutral to negative. Both third actor–complainer and third actor–service employee coalitions independently deteriorate the affective tone, their individual effects are not additive, and the third actor–complainer coalition exerts the larger impact of both coalitions. Two experiments reveal that complainers feel betrayed by the third actor when this actor sides with the service employee (vs. the complainer), which strengthens complainers’ satisfaction with taking steps as a recovery effort by the firm and weakens satisfaction with an offered apology. This research provides managerial insights into the practical significance of coalition effects, how coalitions impair firm response effectiveness, and under which conditions different responses sustain their effectiveness. It also presents several avenues for future research.
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This article proposes that the dyadic interaction between a service provider and a customer is an important determinant of the customer's global satisfaction with the service. Based on role theory, a theoretical framework is presented which abstracts some of the critical components of service encounters across industries.
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The current study examined employee outcomes associated with customer mistreatment, conceptualizing customer mistreatment as signaling failure regarding employees’ pursuit of task and social goals at work. We argue that employees make internal attributions when experiencing customer mistreatment and are likely to engage in rumination because of this perceived goal failure. The goal of this article was to test this conceptualization and examine the outcomes of customer mistreatment–induced rumination as well as emotional labor strategies as potential protective mechanisms against customer mistreatment. Findings from time-lagged data collected from 737 call-center customer representatives indicated that cognitive rumination mediated the relationship between customer mistreatment and supervisor-rated job performance, customer-directed sabotage, employee well-being, and emotional exhaustion. The second mediator, social sharing of negative events, mediated the relationship between customer mistreatment and emotional exhaustion only. As expected, cognitive rumination was positively related to customer sabotage and emotional exhaustion and negatively related to job performance and well-being. Social sharing of negative events was positively related to both well-being and emotional exhaustion. Finally, we found that deep acting, but not surface acting, buffered the effects of customer mistreatment on cognitive rumination and social sharing. Limitations, future research directions, and managerial implications are discussed.
Service literature has implicitly assumed that frontline employees (FLEs) share a common understanding of the term “customer service.” Perhaps because of this assumption, differences in FLE attitudes, behaviors, and performance have been ascribed to organizational characteristics, social environment, job characteristics, or personality. This article shows that FLEs’ interpretations of customer service also matter. Using qualitative and quantitative data, this study finds that three distinct interpretations of customer service, or service models, exist among retail FLEs: (1) the act of giving customers what they ask for, efficiently and courteously; (2) a means to accomplishing immediate objectives, such as sales quotas; and (3) the formation of mutually beneficial relationships with customers through problem solving. Service models are related to FLEs’ customer orientation, competence, surface and deep acting, and interpersonal values. The findings indicate that differences in FLEs’ attitudes, behaviors, and performance can arise from their keeping of different service models; illuminate individual-level beliefs underlying service typologies, such as goods- and service-dominant logic; and suggest that FLE recruitment and training should take service models into account.
For consumers, evaluation of a service firm often depends on evaluation of the “service encounter” or the period of time when the customer interacts directly with the firm. Knowledge of the factors that influence customer evaluations in service encounters is therefore critical, particularly at a time when general perceptions of service quality are declining. The author presents a model for understanding service encounter evaluation that synthesizes consumer satisfaction, services marketing, and attribution theories. A portion of the model is tested experimentally to assess the effects of physical surroundings and employee responses (explanations and offers to compensate) on attributions and satisfaction in a service failure context.
This article contains a set of six invited commentaries written by leading scholars, expressing varied perspectives on the future of frontline research and on the frontline domain itself. The article accompanies the Journal of Service Research special issue on organizational frontlines. In their commentaries, the authors share insightful views on areas of personal interest ranging from employee emotion and customer relationship building to the effect of technology and its implementation at the organizational frontline. Included within each commentary are managerial insights and suggestions for needed research in the highlighted area.
In this article we introduce the concept of workplace incivility and explain how incivility can potentially spiral into increasingly intense aggressive behaviors. To gain an understanding of the mechanisms that underlie an "incivility spiral," we examine what happens at key points: the starting and tipping points. Furthermore, we describe several factors that can facilitate the occurrence and escalation of an incivility spiral and the secondary spirals that can result. We offer research propositions and discuss implications of workplace incivility for researchers and practitioners.
Empathy has long been a topic of interest in psychology, but its nature and development have not been systematically treated. I have for some time been working on a comprehensive theoretical model for empathy, and in this paper, I present the most recent version of this model.