Mental Health, Working in the Retail Industry and An Epidemic of Rudeness

The customer is always right — but at what cost to workers and society at large?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Most people range between quite nice to absolutely lovely. Or manage to put on the appearance of being so, anyway. But the small minority of people who are horrible make one hell of an impact — particularly to the lives of those who work in retail or customer services.

I’m not saying anything new, there. The poor treatment of shop workers, baristas, call centre staff etc. is notorious. They’re on the frontline. All human life uses shops — and staff don’t have any choice in who they have to serve.

But, maybe more importantly, they don’t have any choice in how they have to serve, either. They are trained and instructed to be friendly, accommodating and agreeable at all times. They can’t differentiate between nice or nasty customers and are expected to give their all, every shift. It’s their job. So, where’s the harm? The company wants the custom, the employee wants the work. All jobs have a bad side to them, after all.

But is that bad side so easy to dismiss? Is that distinct minority of abusive customers having a more pernicious and harmful effect to society than we care to admit?

Someone told me recently that she feels like a changed person after working in retail. And changed for the worse, too. She’s had a shop floor job for a high street chain for a couple of years now and had noticed a huge decline in her faith in people and her mental health — so by no means trivial matters. She had endless stories of jaw-dropping rudeness, unreasonable (and illogical) demands, personal insults, snobbishness and calls for her job.

There isn’t a single person who’s worked with the public who wouldn’t surely nod along in recognition of that. I can recall the same from my time working in a shop. But I can also recall the numerous times I’ve witnessed staff being subjected to humiliating treatment when I have myself been a bystanding customer. And it’s way more than the amount of times I’ve witnessed random rudeness from one stranger to another. There’s no doubt that it’s a phenomenon predominantly reserved for staff. They’re sitting ducks.

Human beings being what they are, they are much more likely to focus on negative experiences than positive ones, particularly in terms of the way they are treated by others. It relates to our social status and so we are much more attuned to criticisms or bullying than we are compliments. And I don’t think there are too many jobs that can rival frontline retail staff for being perceived as low status. Hence the reason awful people feel they can insult them with impunity.

But of course, the bully customers are kidding themselves. The reason they lash out is not because the member of staff serving them is in someway ‘beneath them’, but because they can’t answer back. They’re powerless to do anything but smile and try to please because their jobs depend on it. The company they work for insists on it.

There is a lot to be said for learning how to diffuse a difficult situation — diplomacy is a valuable skill. There may even, at times, be a legitimate reason for the customer to complain. But neither of those things are at the heart of what’s happening here. I believe this is more about a culture that has been developing over the last few decades, one which has put profit before the well-being of employees.

That doesn’t come as much of a surprise, of course. Profit comes before just about everything in modern society. But the hypocrisy of companies claiming to take their duty of care towards staff seriously, of implementing health and safety assessments in terms of physical well-being, but then actively training staff to behave in a way that damages their self-esteem needs to be recognised as a potential risk.

I also wonder at whether this is also just an unimaginative, short term view on the part of these companies. It’s not a priority for them to deal with because it isn’t happening to anyone who’s sat in their board meetings. But does it affect them more than they think?

Firstly, as a customer, I hate to see staff treated like this. When a rude customer is unreasonable, to see them pandered to does not make me look favourably on the company. It makes me judge them for how little support they give their staff. Secondly, it annoys me to see someone bending over backwards to try to accommodate unreasonable demands — because that’s not really fair on other customers, is it?

And let’s face it, part of the reason rude customers do their shtick is to get more than they deserve. They’ve learnt that being unpleasant brings (unearned) rewards so why shouldn’t they just carry on? What have they got to lose? The best outcome is that they get preferential treatment, the worst is that they’ve managed to get everyone’s attention. It’s an ego boost.

From a societal point of view, it’s upside down — bad behaviour gets rewarded, good behaviour doesn’t. Ultimately, I think this has a corrosive effect. For people to see behaviour that would — and should — otherwise be considered socially unacceptable gain benefits means that these companies are going beyond the pale. They are normalising behaviour society itself rejects — and perpetuating and changing the very nature of our society.

Because let’s not forget, that high street chains owned by enormous conglomerates is a fairly recent development. Previously, it was much more common to see small businesses, and to be served by the shop owner. And they could decide for themselves whether or not to tolerate rudeness! Such a big shift in the nature of our local towns and communities is bound to have an impact on the rest of society.

And back to the staff themselves? Being abusive to people — strangers or otherwise — is unacceptable and frowned-upon in society for a reason. When you are treated as not even deserving of the basic courtesies we all expect, it grinds you down over time. I’m horrified to think that we can consider a group of people unworthy of having their mental health protected. And this is both from a perspective of allowing mental heath issues to develop as a result of retail workers’ treatment, but also not monitoring existing mental health issues to see how the job affects them.

So, how can the rest of us bring about change? Previously, I’ve made an effort to catch the worker’s eye, to let them know that I can see how much they’re trying and what a load of crap the other customer is talking. But rarely have I said anything.

The reason for this is because I don’t want the situation to escalate and for it to get worse for the shop worker. But is this the right approach? This means that it’s just one individual to another and so doesn’t bring any attention to the situation. So, now I favour saying something to the rude customer, such as asking them to calm down or to be more respectful. Not only does it mean the customer is challenged and the server gets some support but hopefully managers and above can start to see how other customers feel about the intrusion of rudeness into our lives.

So, having a job that serves the public does not mean that you’re not part of the unspoken social contract — one that we are all part of. That’s nonsensical, isn’t it? The very fact the job requires more public involvement than most should surely mean we are more mindful of our manners. Nobody is beneath anyone just because of their job. And companies should not get away with shirking their responsibilities, both to their employees and the societies they profit from.

Having the right to complain about shoddy service is important. But the difference between rude staff and rude customers is that a customer has the freedom to just walk away. And that makes all the difference to how the encounter affects you. Companies should realise that empowering staff to firmly challenge rude customers is for the good of all of us in the long run. And I seriously doubt it will damage their profits either.

English. Shortish. Oldish.

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