Civility training

Standing in the checkout line in a supermarket the other day, I witnessed an interaction between two till operators. One didn't know how to complete a transaction and was asking the other for help. The second one did help but in an accusing way, calling the first employee a "silly cow" and asking why she was put on the till when she didn't know how to make a simple transaction.

A third employee stepped in and pointed out that it was an unusual type of transaction and the first employee was fairly new on the job. That whole incident set me wondering about the effect of this kind of incident on all involved.

So I was interested to read press release about a piece of research coming out in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. It doesn't come to any surprising conclusion but does reinforce the point that:

"When employees are rude to one another, it creates a negative impression that affects consumer judgments of the company"

"Employee incivility was reported across a variety of industries, including restaurants, banks, government offices, gyms, retail stores, universities, airlines, and entertainment venues," the authors write. "Approximately 40 percent reported witnessing an act of employee incivility at least once per month."

Across four studies, the authors found that consumers witnessing acts of employee incivility among employees is extremely detrimental to companies. "It induces consumer anger and causes consumers to make broad and negative conclusions (generalizations) about the firm as a whole, other employees who
work there, and expectations about future encounters with the firm; conclusions that go well beyond the uncivil incident."

Surprisingly, these negative responses extended even to cases when the uncivil employee was trying to help the customer by rectifying a delay in service delivery.

The authors suggest ways for corporations to promote employee civility. "Several methods include selecting for and training in civility, setting zero-tolerance expectations, and reprimanding incivility before it festers," the authors write. "Our findings suggest one reason why training in the treatment of customers and employees enhances the bottom line-because of its impact on customer
behavior," the authors conclude. (A preprint of this article can be found at

What doesn't appear to have been part of the study but is reported in another study is that bad behavior is contagious. In this report the authors report that:

… graffiti on the walls, trash in the street, bicycles chained to a fence, all resulted in a decline in how people behaved in a series of experiments.

A bit of litter or graffiti didn't lead to predatory crime, but actions ranging from littering to trespassing and minor stealing all increased when people saw evidence of others ignoring the rules of good behavior.

In normal behavior most people try to act appropriately to the circumstances … but some tend to avoid effort or seek ways to gain for themselves.

Things like littering an area or applying graffiti change the circumstances by indicating that others are not behaving correctly, which weakens the incentive for people to do the right thing.

Of course generalizing from two pieces of research isn't a good idea but this piece did remind me of a third piece of research I once read that people's copy the eating patterns of people they are eating with – but at this moment I can't find the article.

With all this in mind I wondered if I went back to the original shop where I'd witnessed the rude behavior of one employee to another (assuming I would go back) whether I would find:

a) more employees being rude to each other
b) an expected standard of behavior (as the third employee had tried to rectify the situation by showing empathy and trying to calm things)
c) the rude assistant still being rude – but as a single example
d) the rude assistant having been either fired for rudeness or showing different behaviors (maybe as a result of training).

Most likely in a single return visit I'd not get an answer but the policies, practices, and culture of the organization have an impact on the line that would be taken.