How emotional regulation and
conscientiousness break the
reciprocal circle between customer
mistreatment and surface acting:
an experience sampling study
School of Tourism Management, Sun Yat-Sen University,
Discovery Program for Global Learners, Okayama University, Okayama, Japan
College of Economics and Management, Southwest University, Chongqing, China
School of Business, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China, and
School of Tourism Management, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China
Purpose –Drawing on the conservation of resource theory and emotional contagion perspective, this study
aims to propose that customer mistreatment has an indirect effect on subsequent customer mistreatment by
triggering high levels of surface acting. In other words, there is a vicious circle formed as a result of customer
mistreatment and surface acting. This paper further argues that emotional regulation and conscientiousness
are effective in breaking this vicious circle.
Design/methodology/approach –An experience samplingstudy was conducted on 97 frontline service
employees in a hotel chain’s restaurants in China, with two daily surveys for ten consecutive days. Multilevel
path analyses were used to test the hypotheses.
Findings –The results indicate that employees experiencing customer mistreatment in the morning would
adopt the surface acting strategy more frequently in the afternoon, which in turn induces more customer
mistreatment in the afternoon. Further, this indirect effect can be mitigated by high (versus low) levels of
emotional regulation and conscientiousness.
Originality/value –Recently, there has been growing recognition of the vital links between customer
mistreatment and negative employee outcomes. However, these studies have failed to consider the
carryover effect of customer mistreatment. To the best of the authors’knowledge, this is the ﬁrst pioneer
study on whether and how customer mistreatment can affect subsequent instances of customer
The ﬁrst two authors have equally contributed to this paper. This research was supported by the
National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant numbers: 72001218 and 71832006) and JSPS
KAKENHI (grant number JP20K13555).
Received 7 September2021
Revised 28 December2021
8 April 2022
9 May 2022
Accepted 15 May 2022
International Journal of
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mistreatment, thereby offering a more comprehensive understanding of the consequences of customer
Keywords Customer mistreatment, Surface acting, Emotional regulation, Conscientiousness,
Experience sampling study
Paper type Research paper
Recently, customer mistreatment has become one of the major concerns among scholars and
practitioners in the hospitality industry (Cheng et al.,2020;Huang and Kwok, 2021;Park
and Kim, 2020;Shi and Wang, 2022;Yang et al.,2020). Speciﬁcally, customer mistreatment
refers to employees being mistreated by customers. Such situations include employees
encountering low-quality interpersonal interactions with customers, such as being yelled at
or vented on (Wang et al.,2011). Customer mistreatment tends to trigger a range of negative
employee outcomes, including emotional exhaustion (Yang et al., 2020), turnover intention
(Han et al., 2016) and low service performance (Park and Kim, 2020). Prior studies have
further demonstrated that these negative consequences of customer mistreatment can be
mitigated by several individual factors, namely low negative affectivity (Wang et al.,2011),
recovery self-efﬁcacy (Yang et al., 2020) and locus of control (Park and Kim, 2020).
Although considerable research attention has been directed to the detrimental effects of
customer mistreatment, several key questions remain unanswered. First, whether previous
customer mistreatment will trigger subsequent customer mistreatment is still unknown.
This study deﬁnes this phenomenon as the customer mistreatment carryover effect. From a
resource-based perspective, dealing with customer mistreatment is resource-depleting,
leading to emotional exhaustion, burnout, low service performance or even service sabotage
(Baranik et al., 2017;Wang et al.,2011). Meanwhile, the conservation of resources (COR;
Hobfoll, 1989) theory indicates that people switch to a defensive mode and become
defensive, aggressive and irrational to preserve the self when their resources are
outstretched or exhausted (Hobfoll et al., 2018a,2018b). Accordingly, this study contends
that employees experiencing more customer mistreatment are more likely to be mistreated
again. The emotional contagion perspective (Hatﬁeld et al.,1993), which claims that
emotions can travel from one person to another, also supports this notion. Furthermore,
previous research (Moberly and Watkins, 2008;Wang et al.,2013) has consistently shown
that experiencing customer mistreatment induces employees’negative mood. Therefore, it is
predicted that this negative affect will be spilled over to subsequent customers, increasing
employees’chance of being mistreated again in the future. Drawing on both resource-based
and emotion-based mechanisms, this study suggests the existence of a carryover effect of
customer mistreatment. The continuous encounter with customer mistreatment, compared
with the occasional one-time experience, must be more detrimental to employee well-being.
This paper argues that more attention needs to be paid to the carryover effect of customer
mistreatment. Unfortunately, there is limited research on this.
Second, on top of identifying the main effect, this paper attempts to uncover the
underlying mechanism of this carryover effect. The mediating role of surface acting (i.e. one
type of emotional labor strategy) is proposed. Employees experiencing customer
mistreatment are likely to react with a surface acting strategy, which induces subsequent
customer mistreatment. Emotional labor strategy refers to how employees manage their
emotions to conform to organization-expected emotions (Hochschild, 1983). Research has
established two types of emotional labor strategies: surface acting (i.e. faking the expected
emotions and suppressing felt emotions) and deep acting (i.e. feeling and expressing the
expected emotions) (Hochschild, 1983). This paper argues that customer mistreatment leads
to higher levels of surface acting as employees have to fake the desired emotions in such a
context even if their actual emotions are negative (e.g. anger or distress) due to the abuse
from customers (Rupp and Spencer, 2006). Surface acting is highly related to customer
mistreatment not only as an antecedent but also as an outcome. However, studies on the
predicting effect of surface acting on customer mistreatment remain scarce (for an exception,
see Zhan et al., 2016). Therefore, studying the effect of surface acting on customer
mistreatment is necessary and critical as it could help reduce employees’negative customer
experience from the very beginning.
As this study aims to provide a comprehensive picture of the carryover effect of
customer mistreatment, it further posit its boundary conditions in addition to the carryover
effect and its underlying mechanism. Speciﬁcally, the mediating effect’s strength depends
upon two important personal factors. For the relationship between customer mistreatment
and surface acting, the mitigating role of emotional regulation is deﬁned as one’s ability to
control and regulate self-emotion to recover from mental distress (Alotaibi et al.,2020;Wong
and Law, 2017). For the relationship between surface acting and subsequent customer
mistreatment, the mitigating role of conscientiousness refers to a personality trait that
captures the individual tendency to be organized, reliable, diligent and dutiful (Costa and
McCrae, 1992;Barrick et al.,1993) is emphasized. A multilevel moderated mediation model
(see Figure 1) to explore the mediating and moderating mechanisms of the carryover effect
of customer mistreatment is proposed. The model using an experience sampling study is
tested. In hospitality and tourism literature, there has been an increased emphasis on using
this methodology to investigate service employees’momentary or daily emotions (Hwang
and Wang, 2021), attitudes (Shi et al.,2021) and behaviors (Park et al.,2021;Yu et al.,2020).
This research enriches the ﬁeld’s current understanding of customer mistreatment in the
following aspects. First, to the best of the authors’knowledge, this is the ﬁrst study to
investigate the carryover effect of customer mistreatment. Drawing on both the resource-
based mechanism and emotion-based mechanisms, the paper points out the existence of a
vicious circle between customer mistreatment and surface acting. It further reveals that the
negative inﬂuence of customer mistreatment may continue and cause extensive damage if
employees fail to cope adequately right after its initial occurrence. Second, as the causal
H3 -H4 -
H2: Indirect effect
H5: Conditional indirect effect via emotional regulation
H6: Conditional indirect effect via conscientiousness
Note: H = hypothesis
relationships regarding surface acting and customer mistreatment remain speculative in the
extant literature, this paper contributes to extant literature by explaining how surface acting
can be both an antecedent and an outcome of customer mistreatment. By doing so, a novel
explanation for the occurrence and consequence of customer mistreatment is proposed.
Overall, taking the mediating effect of surface acting into consideration could substantially
enrich one’s understanding of the underlying mechanism of customer mistreatment’s
carryover effect. Third, by examining two crucial between-person level moderators,
emotional regulation and conscientiousness, the present study assists future scholars in
comprehending the carryover effect of customer mistreatment and helps hotel practitioners
educate their frontline service employees to cope with customer complaints mistreatment
Theory and hypotheses
Customer mistreatment in hospitality industry
Over the past decade, customer mistreatment has been identiﬁed as a pervasive and severe
problem for the service industry (Grandey et al., 2004;Harris and Reynolds, 2003). Recently,
it has received increasing attention in the hospitality industry as this issue is alarming
among hospitality frontline service employees who frequently interact with customers face
to face. Typically, hospitality frontline service employees have little time to analyze and
stabilize all nuanced emotions when customer mistreatment occurs. Hotels usually require
frontline service employees to satisfy and please customers constantly as a strategy to
obtain a competitive advantage and offer high-quality services (Cho et al.,2016), leaving
service employees vulnerable to the abuse of high-status and demanding customers (Cai
et al., 2018). Yang et al. (2020) summarized customer mistreatment with the following four
(1) happens frequently;
(2) moderate in intensity (i.e. verbal abuse);
(3) violates social norms, such as mutual respect; and
These four characteristics clearly distinguish customer mistreatment from other customer
misbehaviors, such as customer incivility and customer injustice. For example, although
customer incivility also occurs frequently, it is milder in intensity compared with customer
mistreatment. To conclude, due to the ﬁerce competition in the service industry, customer
mistreatment becomes inevitable (Cai et al.,2018). Studying the topic is highly meaningful
and necessary because it occurs frequently and causes severe mental health distress to
frontline service employees (Yang et al.,2020).
Carryover eﬀect of customer mistreatment
Research studying the negative inﬂuence of customer mistreatment grounded their
arguments mainly on two mechanisms: the resource-based mechanism and the emotion-
based mechanism (Wang et al.,2011). Both mechanisms support the paper’s proposition of
the carryover effect of customer mistreatment. When hotel employees experience customer
mistreatment, they are required to react with a friendly, patient and constructive attitude
(Skarlicki et al.,2008), such as apologizing immediately and taking prompt actions to correct
mistakes. Comforting dissatisﬁed customers and thinking about ways to solve problems
under time pressure is energy-consuming, leading to resource loss (Wang et al.,2011).
Moreover, customer mistreatments are usually offensive, violating the social norm of mutual
respect and hurting employees’dignity or positive self-view (Skarlicki et al.,2016).
Employees in this situation are tempted to vent these negative feelings or even to retaliate
on the customers (Baranik et al.,2017). However, given the explicit and strict hotel rules,
employees have to suppress their negative feelings and impulses. Indeed, suppressing
negative emotions and impulses results in an extra round of self-control resource depletion
(Yam et al.,2015). The COR theory (Hobfoll et al., 2018a,2018b) posits that, because people
possess limited resources, they tend to protect and conserve resources when they perceive
substantial resource loss. Consequently, “secondary resource loss or even a loss spiral may
happen”(Wang et al.,2011; p. 315), further undermining employees’performance on
subsequent service tasks.
Second, previous research has consistently proven (Song et al., 2018;Wang et al., 2013;
Yue et al.,2017) that experiencing customer mistreatment induces employees’negative
affect, such as anger, distress and fear. For instance, Rupp and Spencer (2006) showed that
experiencing customers’interpersonal injustice leads to employees’anger. Wang et al. (2013)
proved a within-person relationship between daily customer mistreatment and employees’
negative mood (e.g. sadness or nervousness) the following day. Emotional contagion theory
(Hatﬁeld et al.,1993) articulates a convergence of emotions between interacted parties via an
automatic process, which makes them mimic the displayed emotions of each other. As the
customer service process is highly interactive, the emotions of both parties can be easily
perceived and intimated. Employees’negative emotions derived from the previous customer
mistreatment experience may also linger (Moberly and Watkins, 2008;Wang et al.,2013)
and then be passed on to subsequent customers. As negative emotions (e.g. frustration or
anger) are the key determinants of individual aggressive behaviors (Fox et al., 2001;Fox and
Spector, 1999), customers with such negative emotions are more likely to display
dysfunctional behaviors. As subsequent customers are not aware of the source of
employees’negative mood, they may be easily provoked by their unreasonable negative
service attitude and thus mistreat the employees too.
In sum, we predict that experiencing customer mistreatment may cause service
employees’resource loss and negative emotions, which in turn solicit subsequent customer
mistreatment. In other words, we propose a carryover effect of customer mistreatment on a
H1. Customer mistreatment is positively related to subsequent customer mistreatment.
Mediating role of surface acting
We argue that the abovementioned carryover effect of customer mistreatment occurs mainly
through employees’responses and reactions, such as emotional labor strategy, a process
where employees manage their work emotions to conform to expected organizational
emotions (Hochschild, 1983). In customer mistreatment, employees’natural and genuine
reactive emotions should be negative, such as anger, fear or distress (Song et al., 2018;Wang
et al., 2013;Yue et al., 2017). However, mistreated employees have to fake a friendly or
pleasant emotion even though they feel deeply hurt by customers’abuse (Rupp and Spencer,
2006). Therefore, we argue that when being mistreated by customers, employees are more
likely to adopt a surface acting strategy.
We argue that surface acting strategy, in turn, causes subsequent customer
mistreatment. The reason is twofold. First, from a resource-based perspective, surfaceacting
is resource-consuming and has been associated with emotional exhaustion (Chen et al.,
2019), burnout (Choi et al.,2019), and ego-depletion (Deng et al., 2017). With resource
depletion and loss, employees could allocate little to none mental and physical resources to
subsequent tasks (Hagger et al., 2010) and perform worse in serving subsequent customers.
Second, from an emotion-based mechanism, high levels of surface acting result in
employees’strong negative affect (Lennard et al., 2019;Scott and Barnes, 2011), which would
then be transmitted to subsequent customers according to the emotional contagion theory
(Hatﬁeld et al., 1993). Customers with strong negative affectivity (i.e. anger, distress or upset)
are more likely to display aggressive behaviors toward service employees (Fox et al., 2001;
Fox and Spector, 1999):
H2. Customer mistreatment has a positive indirect effect on subsequent customer
mistreatment through surface acting.
Moderating role of emotional regulation
The relationship between customer mistreatment and surface acting can be buffered by a
high level of emotional regulation, which refers to one’s ability to regulate and control one’s
emotions (Wong and Law, 2017). Previously, this paper argued that customer mistreatment
leads to surface acting because it directly causes employees’negative affect. As articulated
by Wang et al. (2011), any factor amplifying or reducing employees’negative emotional
reactions to mistreatment would inﬂuence the magnitude of the effects of customer
mistreatment. To mitigate the harmful impacts of customer mistreatment, this paper argues
that mistreated employees have to regulate or control their negative emotions effectively,
reducing the discrepancy between displayed and felt emotions and, thereby, the levels of
surface acting. According to Wong and Law (2017), employees more adept in emotional
regulation are able to control their emotions better and handle difﬁcult situations rationally.
For employees with high levels of emotional regulation, the positive relationship between
surface acting and customer mistreatment should be weaker.
Conversely, for employees with a lower level of emotional regulation, customer
mistreatment triggers more surface acting. Speciﬁcally, employees who cannot regulate and
reduce their negative mood after customer mistreatment would demonstrate higher levels of
surface acting. Prior empirical literature has also provided strong evidence on the
moderating effect of emotional regulation in the customer mistreatment context. For
example, Wang et al. (2011) found that high self-efﬁcacy for emotional regulation buffers the
negative effect of customer mistreatment in terms of sabotaging customers. They suggested
that when facing customer mistreatment, employees with a higher level of emotional
regulation are more willing to exert efforts to regulate their negative emotions:
H3. Emotional regulation moderates the positive effect of customer mistreatment on
surface acting, such that the effect is weaker when emotional regulation is high.
Moderating role of conscientiousness
We argue that the relationship between surface acting and subsequent customer
mistreatment can be mitigated by a high level of conscientiousness, which refers to the
stable trait of being organized, reliable and diligent (McCrae and Costa, 1987). There are two
reasons. Previously, it was argued that surface acting consumes the energy and resource
reserved for subsequent service tasks, inducing worse service performance and subsequent
customer mistreatment. Conscientiousness can buffer this negative relationship by
supplementing employees’resource loss in using surface acting. Speciﬁcally, conscientious
employees are organized, reliable, responsible and persistent in nature (Barrick et al.,1993),
and they may not need extra resources to maintain acceptable service quality. Some
researchers (Halbesleben et al.,2009;Russell et al.,2017) further claimed that
conscientiousness itself qualiﬁes as a resource and can enable employees to better manage
and use other resources at work. Moreover, conscientious employees tend to demonstrate
stronger goal-achievement orientation and exert greater effort to overcome the goal-
irrelevant obstacles in more challenging situations (Barrick and Mount, 2017), such as the
customer mistreatment situation in this study. Chi and Grandey (2019) proposed the
buffering effect of conscientiousness on the negative inﬂuence of surface acting and claimed
that conscientiousness is a typical inhibition-oriented trait with the tendency to inhibit
H4. Conscientiousness moderates the positive effect of surface acting on subsequent
customer mistreatment, such that the effect is weaker when conscientiousness is
Consistent with our moderation arguments in H3 and H4, this paper expects that the two
between-person level factors –emotional regulation and conscientiousness –can also
moderate the proposed within-person level indirect effect (H2). Inherent in the indirect effect
hypothesis is that customer mistreatment leads to surface acting (stage-1 relationship),
which in turn results in subsequent customer mistreatment (stage-2 relationship). Our
moderation H3 suggests that higher levels of emotional regulation can weaken the stage-1
relationship, while moderation H4 suggests that higher levels of conscientiousness can
weaken the stage-2 relationship. Therefore, for employees with higher levels of emotional
regulation, the indirect effect of customer mistreatment on subsequent customer
mistreatment through surface acting should be weaker. Similarly, for employees with higher
levels of conscientiousness, the overall indirect effect should also be weaker. Taken together,
this study proposes a multilevel moderated mediation model (see Figure 1 for the integrated
model) and hypothesizes the following:
H5. Emotional regulation moderates the positive indirect effect of customer
mistreatment on subsequent customer mistreatment through surface acting, such
that the indirect effect is weaker when emotional regulation is high.
H6. Conscientiousness moderates the positive indirect effect of customer mistreatment
on subsequent customer mistreatment through surface acting, such that the indirect
effect is weaker when conscientiousness is high.
Procedures and sample
This study surveyed 100 frontline service employees from the restaurantsof a locally owned
hotel chain in a popular tourist city in China. The hotel chain was established by the current
chief executive ofﬁcer (CEO) 15 years ago and currently consists of six four-star hotels
located in the same city. The hotel chain has a total number of 900 employees, with 100
working as service employees in the restaurants. The primary job responsibilities of these
frontline service employees in the restaurants include welcoming and orienting customers,
taking orders, serving food and calculating the bills. In addition, employees are required by
the hotel to respond to customer requests timely and politely and handle customer
complaints patiently and effectively. Given that the daily tasks involve close and frequent
communications with customers, employees are therefore prone to customer mistreatment.
Therefore, this research site and sample are ideal for studying customer mistreatment. The
human resource (HR) director gave the authors a name list of 100 frontline service
employees in the restaurants. To handle employees’privacy concerns during the survey, we
coded their names into numbers from 001 to 100 and used this code to track each survey
subsequently. Before the survey, the hotel organized a short meeting introducing the
researchers (i.e. two of the authors and three student assistants) to the participants. The
research team asked the participants to report their actual feelings at work and guaranteed
data conﬁdentiality. The team explained that the data would be used for research purposes
only and no identiﬁable personal information would appear in the general consulting report
generated for the hotel’s reference.
There are two phases in this survey. The ﬁrst phase included a general survey
measuring participants’emotional regulation, conscientiousness, trait negative affect and
personal information, including age, gender, education level and organizational tenure. The
second phase (two weeks after the ﬁrst phase) involved the daily survey. Speciﬁcally, the
participants were asked to ﬁll out two surveys per day (i.e. noon and afternoon) for ten
consecutive days. The restaurant was in business from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The place will be
handed over to another service team in the hotel from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. as a night bar. The
frontline service employees in the restaurant did not take shifts during business hours so
they could complete both rounds of daily survey at work. When the employees ﬁnished their
lunch services (around 1:30 p.m.), we administered the noon survey measuring their
experience of customer mistreatment in the morning. When employees ﬁnished their dinner
services (around 7:00 p.m.), we conducted the afternoon survey measuring their surface
acting and experienced customer mistreatment in the afternoon. Each daily survey took
approximately 5–8 min, which was consistent with Fisher and To’s (2012) recommended
time length for experience sampling methodology in organizational behavioral studies.
In the end, 97 of the 100 participants completed all daily surveys across ten days,
yielding a response rate of 97%. As both the CEO and HR director of the hotel chain were
eager to handle the problem of frequent customer mistreatment, they candidly supported
our survey on their restaurant service employees and requested a consulting report on the
survey. This study was able to obtain a high response rate due to the strong support from
the hotel. For example, the hotel speciﬁcally scheduled two daily meetings during working
hours for employees to ﬁll out the daily surveys. Among the 97 participants, 60.8% (N= 59)
were female, 34% were under 30 years old, 51.6%were in the age group of 30–50, and 14.4%
were over 50 years old. 87.6% (N= 85) of them reported high school as their highest
education level. For the work tenure at the current hotel, 30.9% of them worked less than
two years while 36.1% of them worked over ﬁve years.
Customer mistreatment. Customer mistreatment was assessed using the 18-item scale
developed by Wang et al. (2011). A sample item is “yelled at you.”Subsequent customer
mistreatment refers to the occurrence of customer mistreatment in the afternoon and was
measured using the same scale. The participants were required to rate the frequency of these
behaviors during their working hours in the morning (or afternoon) on a ﬁve-point Likert
scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always). The scale achieved an adequate level of reliability,
with a Cronbach alpha of 0.94 in both morning and afternoon surveys.
Surface acting. We measured surface acting using a three-item scale developed by
Brotheridge and Lee (2002). A sample item is “I pretend to have emotions that I do not really
have.”The respondents reported their frequency of using such an emotional labor strategy
on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (often). This scale achieved an adequate
level of reliability in our study, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.86.
Emotional regulation. We measured emotional regulation using a four-item subscale of
Wong and Law Emotional Intelligence Scale (Wong and Law, 2017), which has four
dimensions, including self-emotion appraisal, other-emotion appraisal, use of emotion and
regulation of emotion. A sample item is “I can always calm down quickly when I am very
angry.”The scale demonstrated good reliability in this study, with a Cronbach’s alpha of
Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is assessed with an eight-item subscale developed
by Saucier (1994). Example items are “organized”and “efﬁcient.”The participants were
required to indicate to what extent they agree that these adjectives describe them accurately
on a ﬁve-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The
scale achieved good reliability in this study,with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.80.
Control variables. Participants’demographic variables were controlled, including age
(years), gender (1 = “male,”2=“female”), educational level (1 = “middle school,”2=“high
school,”3=“bachelor’s degree”) and organizational tenure (months). According to the
literature (Huang et al.,2006), these demographic variables have signiﬁcant effects on
surface acting and customer mistreatment. Employees’dispositional negative affectivity
(NA) was also controlled as this variable has consistently been found to cause negative
service behaviors (Chi and Grandey, 2019;Wang et al., 2011). We measured NA using the
scale from the international positive and negative affect schedule short form (I-PANAS-SF;
Strategies of data analyses
As our data has a nested structure (i.e. daily measures nested within persons), we conducted
a multilevel path analysis in Mplus version 7 (Muthén and Muthén, 2017) to test our
hypotheses. Speciﬁcally, we set the within-person variables (i.e. customer mistreatment in
the morning, surface acting and customer mistreatment in the afternoon) at level 1 and the
between-person variables (i.e. emotional regulation, conscientiousness and demographic
information) at level 2. To test the multilevel indirect effect, the Monte Carlo Method for
Assessing Mediation (Preacher et al.,2010) was used to generate 95% conﬁdence intervals
with 20,000 times repetitions for simulation. To test the cross-level conditional indirect
effect, the approach recommended by Bauer et al. (2006) was adapted. Prior to calculating
the cross-level interaction terms, following the suggestion from Enders and Toﬁghi (2007),
mean-centered level 1 predictors (i.e. customer mistreatment in the morning) and grand
mean-centered level 2 predictors (i.e. emotional regulation, conscientiousness, demographic
variables and negative affect) were grouped.
The means, standard deviations, correlations, composite reliability (CR) and average
variance extracted (AVE) are presented in Table 1. All the CR and AVE values for the multi-
item constructs were greater than the cutoff value of 0.7 and 0.5 (Fornell and Larcker, 1981),
respectively, suggesting a good convergent validity of the measurement model.
A null model was run to examine the variances of daily variables at both within-person
and between-person levels. The results show that, for each daily variable, there were
substantial variances at the within-person level. Speciﬁcally, the percentage of within-
person variance was 0.39 for customer mistreatment, 0.44 for surface acting and 0.34 for
subsequent customer mistreatment. The interrater agreement scores (Rwg
) and intraclass
correlation coefﬁcients (ICC) for the three daily variables –customer mistreatment (Rwg
0.96, ICC1 = 0.61, ICC2 = 0.94), surface acting (Rwg
= 0.78, ICC1 = 0.55, ICC2 = 0.92) and
subsequent customer mistreatment (Rwg
= 0.87, ICC1 = 0.64, ICC2 = 0.95) were also
Variables Mean Between-person SD
person SD 1 2345678910
1. Age 36.27 11.11
2. Gender 1.61 0.49 0.07*
3. Educational level 1.46 0.70 0.41** 0.17**
4. Organizational tenure 52.14 41.61 0.45** 0.19** 0.14**
5. Trait negative affect 2.31 0.63 0.17** 0.01 0.04 0.23** (0.60)
6. Emotional regulation 3.42 0.73 0.13** 0.02 0.10** 0.07* 0.16** (0.75)
7. Conscientiousness 3.60 0.53 0.33** 0.00 0.16** 0.13** 0.36** 0.23** (0.80)
8. CM (morning) 1.87 0.52 0.64 0.03 0.21** 0.16** 0.09** 0.28** 0.09** 0.20** (0.94) 0.15** 0.73**
9. Surface acting (afternoon) 2.77 0.82 1.06 0.09** 0.05 0.11** 0.07* 0.10** 0.04 0.04 0.24** (0.86) 0.21**
10. Subsequent CM (afternoon) 1.86 0.53 0.62 0.01 0.22** 0.18** 0.07* 0.27** 0.12** 0.22** 0.97** 0.24** (0.94)
Composite reliability (CR) 0.85 0.88 0.97 0.91 0.96
AVE 0.58 0.65 0.91 0.78 0.89
= 97; N
= 970; CM: customer mistreatment; correlations below diagonal were between-person correlations; the within-
person variables aggregated to the between-person level. Reliability coefﬁcients were in the parentheses of the diagonal using bold italics. Correlations above
diagonal were within-person correlations. * p<0.05. **p<0.01
Means, SDs and
calculated. These results jointly justiﬁed the application of the multilevel analysis (LeBreton
and Senter, 2008).
A series of multilevel conﬁrmative factor analyses (CFAs) to diagnose the distinctiveness
of focal variables were then conducted. Considering the relatively large number of
measurement items in customer mistreatment (N= 18) and conscientiousness (N= 9), the
item-parceling approach proposed by Little et al. (2002) was used and three parcels were
generated for them. The study’s hypothesized ﬁve-factor model was further compared with
several alternative models combining the likely similar constructs. As shown in Table 2, the
ﬁve-factor model displays the best ﬁt with the multilevel data (chi-square = 244.881, df =
118, CFI = 0.969, TLI = 0.959, RMSEA = 0.034, SRMR
= 0.025, SRMR
In addition, at both within-person and between-person levels, the factor loadings on each
variable were greater than 0.60. Taken together, the results of multilevel CFA indicated a
good distinctiveness of study variables.
The results of the multilevel path analysis are depicted in Figure 2.H1 proposed a
positive relationship between customer mistreatment and subsequent customer
mistreatment. As shown in Figure 2, this relationship was positive and signiﬁcant (
se = 0.05, p<0.05), supporting H1.
H2 proposed an indirect effect of customer mistreatment on subsequent customer
mistreatment through surface acting. The path analysis showed that the effect size of the
indirect effect was 0.04. After assessing the signiﬁcance of indirect effect with 20,000 Monte
Carlo replications, the 95% conﬁdence interval of [0.00, 0.03], excluding 0 and suggesting a
signiﬁcant and positive indirect effect was obtained. Thus, H2 was supported.
H3 argued that emotional regulation weakens the positive link between customer
mistreatment and surface acting. As shown in Figure 2, the interaction term was negative
and marginal signiﬁcant (
=0.17, se = 0.09, p<0.10). Figure 3 depicts this interaction
effect. Speciﬁcally,when employees possessed high levels of emotional regulation, there was
no relationship betweencustomer mistreatment and surface acting (simple slope = 0.00, se =
0.11, t= 0.01, p>0.10); in contrast, when emotional regulation was low, the relationship was
positive and signiﬁcant (simple slope = 0.26, se = 0.09, t= 2.92, p<0.05). Thus, H3 was
Results of multilevel
df CFI TLI RMSEA SRMR
Hypothesized ﬁve-factor model 244.881 118 0.969 0.959 0.034 0.025 0.063
Four-factor model 1
(CM and SCM combined)
1208.934 124 0.733 0.664 0.097 0.157 0.063
Four-factor model 2
(ER and CONS combined)
333.771 122 0.948 0.933 0.043 0.025 0.097
(CM and SCM combined;
ER and CONS combined)
1306.570 127 0.710 0.644 0.100 0.157 0.097
(CM, SUF and SCM combined;
ER and CONS combined)
1992.098 130 0.542 0.450 0.124 0.198 0.155
Single-factor model 2047.686 131 0.529 0.439 0.126 0.198 0.184
= 97; N
= 970; CM: customer mistreatment; SCM: subsequent
customer mistreatment; SURF: surface acting; ER: emotional regulation; CONS: conscientiousness; CFI:
comparative ﬁt index; TLI: Tucker–Lewis index; RMSEA: root-mean-square error of approximation; SRMR:
standardized root-mean-square residual
HH4 argued that conscientiousness moderated the relationship between surface acting and
subsequent customer mistreatment. As shown in Figure 2, the interaction term was negative
and signiﬁcant (
=0.11, se = 0.05, p<0.05). Figure 4 depicts this interaction effect.
Speciﬁcally, when the level of conscientiousness was high, there was no relationship between
surface acting and subsequent customer mistreatment (simple slope = 0.05, se = 0.04, t=
1.28, p>0.10); in contrast, when conscientiousness was low, the relationship was positive
and signiﬁcant (simple slope = 0.17, se = 0.05, t=3.59,p<0.05). Thus, H4 was supported.
Results of multilevel
Notes: Nbetween-person level = 97; Nwithin-person level = 970; unstandardized coefficients
and standard errors (in parentheses) are reported. Although not depicted, emotional regulation
was not associated with surface acting (γ = −0.03, se = 0.11, ns); conscientiousness was also
not related to subsequent customer mistreatment (γ = 0.18, se = 0.16, ns). For parsimonious,
we did not depict the effect of control variables on surface acting and subsequent customer
mistreatment in the figure. Among these control variables, only negative affectivity has a
marginally significant effect on surface acting (γ = −0.25, se = 0.14, p < 0.10). As for the
prediction of subsequent customer mistreatment, only age (γ = 0.01, se = 0.01, p < 0.10) and
gender (γ = −0.21, se = 0.09, p < 0.05) demonstrated significant effects. + p < 0.10. * p < 0.05.
**p < 0.01. ***p < 0.001
moderating effect of
on the relationship
H5 and H6 proposed two conditional indirect effects, the results of which were
demonstrated in Table 3, showing that indirect effect (i.e. customer mistreatment !surface
acting !subsequent customer mistreatment) was signiﬁcant when emotional regulation
was low (effect = 0.05, se = 0.02, 95% Monte Carlo CI = [0.006, 0.058]) and nonsigniﬁcant
when emotional regulation was high (effect = 0.03, se = 0.02, 95% Monte Carlo CI = [0.020,
0.021]), supporting H5. Similarly, the indirect effect was signiﬁcant when conscientiousness
was low (effect = 0.14, se = 0.04, 95% Monte Carlo CI = [0.001, 0.050]) and nonsigniﬁcant
when conscientiousness was high (effect = 0.03, se = 0.02, 95% Monte Carlo CI = [0.004,
0.023]), supporting H6.
The data results support this paper’s proposed moderated mediation model. Speciﬁcally, the
carryover effect of customer mistreatment over time and the mediating effect of surface
acting was proven. In addition, the results show that emotional regulation can weaken the
positive effect of customer mistreatment on surface acting, and conscientiousness can
weaken the positive effect of surface acting on subsequent mistreatment. Also, the indirect
effect of customer mistreatment on subsequent customer mistreatment through surface
acting can be weakened by a high (versus low) level of emotional regulation and
It is worthy to note that the proposed ﬁrst moderator-emotional regulation is a sub-
dimension of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence represents one’sabilityto
understand, use and manage his or her own emotions, which consists of four sub-dimensions,
moderating effect of
Results of conditional
indirect effects tests
Indirect path Moderators
Customer mistreatment !surface
acting !subsequent customer
Emotional regulation High 0.03 0.02 [0.020. 0.021]
Low 0.05** 0.02 [0.006, 0.058]
Conscientiousness High 0.03 0.02 [0.004, 0.023]
Low 0.14*** 0.04 [0.001, 0.050]
= 97; N
= 970; **p<0.01. ***p<0.001. 95% conﬁdence intervals
were generated from 20,000 times’Monte Carlo simulations
namely, self-emotion appraisal, other-emotion appraisal, use of emotion and regulation of
emotion (Wong and Law, 2017). Theoretically, emotional regulation is the most pertinent
dimension in the context of customer mistreatment. Indeed, customer mistreatment is a
behavior with a distinguishable negative valence (e.g. verbal abuse) that does not require a
high level of self –or other –emotional appraisal to detect or perceive. An essential factor in
handling customer mistreatment is employees’capability to control and regulate negative
emotions (e.g. anger and upset). Therefore, prior research (Wang et al.,2011) considered
emotional regulation as an important emotion-related moderator in customer mistreatment
research. To advance this line of research, this paper only included emotional regulation in
the used model. To empirically justify the inclusion of emotional regulation, the four
dimensions of emotional intelligence were simultaneously included as the moderators in the
relationship between customer mistreatment and surface acting. Consistent with this study’s
prediction, the results indicated emotion regulation as the only inﬂuential factor interacting
with customer mistreatment (
=0.26, se = 0.12, t=2.21, p<0.05; for self-emotion
= 0.05, se = 0.15, t=0.32,p>0.10; other-motional appraisal,
=0.01, se =
0.10, t=0.10, p>0.10; use of emotion,
=0.01, se = 0.11, t=0.06, p>0.10). Hence, the
additional analyses showed that emotional regulation was the only factor under the umbrella
of emotional intelligence that is relevant in the context of customer mistreatment.
This study contributes to customer mistreatment research in multiple ways. First, this
pioneering study explores whether and how customer mistreatment can solicit subsequent
customer mistreatment. This study emphasizes that customer mistreatment can carry over
into the next stage and form a vicious circle with employees’surface acting strategy over
time. With this continuous perspective, this paper argued that if the initial harm from the
customer mistreatment is not well solved or released, it will carry over to the subsequent
tasks, leading to multiple rounds of damage to employees. The previous studies failed to
recognize the lingering nature of the detrimental effects of customer mistreatment on
employee outcomes. This paper also argued that it is of great value to emphasize the
continuity of customer mistreatment as it causes far more damage than one-time customer
Second, this study contributes to the theory of customer mistreatment by streamlining
two different perspectives –the COR theory (Hobfoll, 1989) and emotional contagion theory
(Hatﬁeld et al., 1993). In doing so, this paper claims customer mistreatment as a complex
phenomenon that simultaneously involves cognitive and affective attributes. Ignoring either
of the attributes would impair the understanding of the actual phenomenon. To be
comprehensive, this research’s mediating arguments rested on these two perspectives.
Indeed, the proposed mediator –surface acting, as an emotional labor strategy, contains
both cognitive and affective connotations (Richards and Gross, 2000) as the process of
surface acting includes perceiving self-emotion, acknowledging required emotion, hiding
real emotion and acting the required emotion. Thus, this paper contends that surface acting
can properly explain the carryover effect of customer mistreatment from both the resource-
based and the emotion-based mechanisms, enriching the understanding of the carryover
effect of customer mistreatment.
Third, two conditional contingents of the carryover effect were studied, not only to
further verify the theoretical mechanisms of the indirect effect but also to direct researchers’
attention to employees’emotional regulation ability and conscientiousness personality.
Research outcomes illustrate that by effectively reducing employees’surface acting levels
during customer mistreatment, they will be protected against subsequent customer
mistreatments. While most prior customer service research (Chi et al., 2011;Chi and
Grandey, 2019;Judge et al., 2009) concentrates on the mitigating role of extraversion
personality, the important role of conscientiousness was illustrated in this paper. From the
correlation table (Table 1) and the interaction ﬁgure (Figure 4), it can be seen that
conscientiousness alone can lead to low levels of customer mistreatment (r=0.22, p<
0.05), suggesting that the positive inﬂuence of conscientiousness may not necessarily
interact with surface acting. However, from a resource perspective, this study found a
signiﬁcant interaction effect between conscientiousness and surface acting, as
conscientiousness can supplement employees’resource loss in using surface acting. In sum,
this research sheds new light on future customer mistreatment research by introducing
these two moderators.
This paper calls out important messages to restaurant and hotel managers. First and
foremost, the carryover effect of customer mistreatment raises a red ﬂag to the hoteliers that
customer mistreatment is usually not an isolated incident. Managers in the service industry
tend to be customer-driven and result-oriented. In case of on-site disputes and customer
mistreatment, employees’sense making and psychological adjustment during the process
oftentimes caught little managerial attention so long as customers were satisﬁed and no
visible damage to employees was observed. This study demonstrated that if employees
adopt inappropriate reactive emotional labor strategy to handle customer mistreatment,
although seemingly efﬁcient in the short-run, the resultant harmful effect will carry over to
the subsequent service tasks and eventually form a vicious circle. In this sense, managers
and leaders should be trained to recognize surface acting and the detrimental effect of
suppressing negative emotions among employees, including employees’self-doubt,
dissatisfaction, or even intention to quit, eventually hurting both employees and business
Meanwhile, this study also sheds light on multiple HR practices applicable to discourage
surface acting and promote deep acting, emotional regulation and contentiousness among
the workforce. First, it is recommended that practitioners make full use of training
programs. Previous studies have shown that training can increase individual awareness of
their emotions and ability to use different emotional labor strategies (Ashkanasy et al.,2009;
Slaski and Cartwright, 2003). Hotel managers are recommended to use orientation programs
and on-the-job training programs to help employees understand different strategies of
regulating and displaying emotions, emphasizing the beneﬁt of being sincere and genuine at
work and the harmful effects of displaying faking emotions. In terms of training on emotion
regulation, workshops or experience sharing sessions offered by managers or experienced
coworkers can help employees empathize better with customers, understand the source of
mistreatment and eventually release employees’negative emotions. Off-the-job training
programs, such as mindfulness and yoga, are also helpful in improving employees’ability to
regulate and manage their negative emotions. Training sessions or seminars on time
management, error management, goal-setting and task prioritization could help employees
be more conscientious at work, which could help break the vicious cycle of customer
Second, hotels and restaurants should provide organizational support to reduce instances
of employees suppressing negative emotions and ultimately increase engagement (Luo et al.,
2019;Wang, 2020). Managers should ensure that organizations have open and accessible
consultation channels to alleviate employees’emotional resource depletion. In a similar vein,
frontline service employees could be encouraged to communicate with experienced
coworkers to learn about effective strategies to cope with different forms of customer
mistreatment, such as ﬁnding the appropriate timing to seek assistance from managers.
Third, based on the results of the current study, customer mistreatment could also be
reduced through the selection processes by identifying employees who are less inclined to
fall into the vicious cycle of customer mistreatment. On the one hand, emotional intelligence
tests can identify new employees with high levels of emotional regulation. On the other
hand, managers need to promote employee qualities that feature conscientiousness in the
workplace. HR managers could consider conscientiousness as one of the crucial traits for
selecting frontline employees. Speciﬁcally, they can obtain applicants’comprehensive
personality proﬁles using the Big-ﬁve factor scale. In addition, managers can ask scenario
questions in job interviews to screen for conscientious employees with qualities such as
being reliable, efﬁcient, hardworking, sincere and achievement-oriented.
Limitations and future directions
This study has several limitations. First, all the variables in the study were self-reported,
which may induce the issue of common method biases (Podsakoff et al.,2011). However, as
this study aims to capture employees’psychological and emotional experiences during
service interaction, self-report measures are more accurate than other-report measures in the
current research setting (Lennard et al., 2019). Prior literature also suggested that group-
mean centering all predictors as performed in this paper is an effective solution to reduce
biases (Lennard et al.,2019). Nonetheless, scholars are encouraged to test this paper’s
proposed model using other-report measurements.
Second, in addition to the moderators (i.e. emotional regulation and conscientiousness)
proposed in this study, future researchers are recommended to explore additional
moderators to inhibit the carryover effect of customer mistreatment based on two theoretical
mechanisms (i.e. resource-based and emotion-based perspective) as illustrated. For example,
managers’timely support and consolation would be helpful, not only in replenishing
employees’constrained resources but also in purging their negative emotions. It is plausible
that customer or organizational factors may also have a moderating effect. Future scholars
could also systematically test more contingent variables at different levels.
Third, data was collected from a single hotel in a single country, limiting the
generalizability of this paper’s research ﬁndings. The behavioral manifestations of customer
mistreatment may vary across different classes of hotels. For example, customers in a
luxurious hotel may be less likely to verbally abuse hotel staff, but are more likely to mistreat
the service employees by making exorbitant demands. Moreover, hotels of different classes
usually set different service principles for their employees, resulting in employees’different
responses in a customer mistreatment context. Although the study’s model is not culturally
speciﬁc, however, the data were collected solely from China. Chinese employees are likely to
suppress negative emotions more often when facing customer mistreatment because of the
high power distance culture (Hofstede, 1980). But the paper’s theorization and arguments were
deducted from research conducted in diversiﬁed cultures. Therefore, this paper contends that
the conclusions reached are likely to be generalizable across different cultures. However, the
possibility that variations exist in a speciﬁc cultural context is not excluded. Future research
may explore whether cultural differences exist among the established relationships.
The present study conﬁrmed that the way mistreated employees respond to customer
mistreatment (i.e. adopting a surface acting strategy) would in turn, increase their chance of
being mistreated again. In addition, emotional regulation is found to weaken the positive
effect of customer mistreatment on surface acting and conscientiousness can weaken the
positive effect of surface acting on subsequent mistreatment. This study calls out important
messages to hospitality researchers and practitioners while offering insights on the
carryover effect of customer mistreatment over time.
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Appendix. Measurement scales
Demanded special treatment.
Thought they were more important than others.
Asked you to do things they could do by themselves.
Vented their bad mood out on you.
Did not understand that you had to comply with certain rules.
Complained without reason.
Made exorbitant demands.
Yelled at you.
Spoke aggressively to you.
Got angry at you even over minor matters.
Argued with you the whole time throughout the call.
Refused to listen to you.
Cut you off mid-sentence.
Made demands that you could not deliver.
Insisted on demands that are irrelevant to your service.
Doubted your ability.
Used condescending language to you.
Resist expressing my true feelings.
Pretend to have emotions that I do not really have.
Hide my true feelings about a situation.
I am able to control my temper so that I can handle difﬁculties rationally.
I am quite capable of controlling my own emotions.
I can always calm down quickly when I am very angry.
I have good control of my own emotions.
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