If you read very many consumer complaints, it won't be long before you find examples of anger at what the consumer believes to be rude treatment by an employee.

For example, Adrian, of Miami, Fla., had just purchased a bed frame at a Rooms To Go store when he realized store employees had damaged it while trying to load it in the truck.

“They said I can exchange it if I liked but they didn't have any frames with drawers, so I just wanted my cash so I can go somewhere and buy another frame,” Adrian told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They told me they couldn't give me the cash back and that they would send me a check through the mail in seven to eight business days. A manager named Ugo didn't even apologize for the inconvenience and was very rude. So i told him 'so I have to suffer because you guys messed up' and he replied 'yes sir you do.' I will never shop there again.”

“I will never shop there again” is almost always a part of this kind of complaint, and new research shows consumers who say this really mean it. Rather than reporting what they consider rude behavior to a supervisor, they simply take their business elsewhere.

Rudeness is widespread

Approximately one-third of consumers surveyed reported they're treated rudely by an employee on an average of once a month and that these and other episodes of uncivil worker behavior make them less likely to patronize those businesses, say researchers from the University of Southern California and Georgetown University.

Workplace incivility includes a range of behaviors, prompting the researchers to study the prevalence of incidents where customers witness an employee behaving uncivilly, the effects on consumers of witnessing such behavior and the subsequent level of anger and desire to hold employees accountable for their actions.

The team surveyed 244 consumers and found that incivility is widespread. Consumers recalled incidents involving an uncivil employee in many industries, and particularly in restaurants and retailing. Uncivil outbursts, as well as rude behavior directed at customers and other employees were in some cases witnessed once a month by approximately one-third of the survey participants.

In the dark

Furthermore, managers may not be aware of how frequently their customers witness an employee behaving uncivilly because consumers seldom report the behavior to employers – although a majority of the respondents went home and told friends and family members about the incident, and many publish details of the incident on Internet sites like ConsumerAffairs.com. But without reports, managers are unable to address the issue with employees, the researchers note.

The study found that witnessing employee incivility makes customers angry and creates desires to "get back" at the perpetrator and the firm. Customers are less likely to repurchase from the firm and express less interest in learning about the firm's new services. For managers who are made aware of the offending behavior, their own harsh treatment of the employee can also prompt negative reactions from consumers.

It should be noted that civility is a two-way street, and that often under-trained and over-worked employees respond with rudeness when they encounter one too many rude consumers at the end of a long day. All the more reason, the researchers say, for businesses to better train their employees and provide the support they need to maintain their composure.

"Regardless of the perpetrator or the reason, witnessing incivility scalds customer relationships and depletes the bottom line," report the co-authors, Georgetown University Assistant Professor of Management Christine Porath and USC Professors of Business Administration and Marketing Debbie MacInnis and Valerie S. Folkes.

Best response

According to Porath and Folkes, the best response is a simple apology, which the researchers found was a just and proper response from both the employee and the supervisor. But the preferred solution is the establishment of training programs that foster employee civility in order to prevent harmful outbursts.

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