What Your Waiter Is Doing Behind Your Back

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People who work in restaurants know that their tips, and even their jobs, depend upon a pleasant demeanor, no matter what the provocation.

As long as the customer is watching, that is.

A new study by two researchers from the University of Houston and Baylor University explores how these apparently powerless employees take quiet revenge on customers who are overly demanding, offensive or downright insulting.

Six percent even admitted they spat in a customer's soup, or otherwise deliberately contaminated food before they served it, thus bringing to life an enduring urban legend.

Fully 79 percent admitted ridiculing a customer behind his back, and 65 percent retaliated by making a customer wait longer than was necessary.

They have ways to deal with cheapskates, too. Eleven percent confessed to increasing a tip without the customer's permission, and 19 percent had confronted a customer about the size of a tip.

The secret act of hostility, or, to use the authors' term, "customer-directed counterproductive work behavior," is the only safe form of payback open to people who are required to be polite no matter what.

The researchers claim that their study is a first of its kind. While others explored the effects of stress and emotional exhaustion within an organization, none had looked at the effects on customers.

Mercifully, only five percent admitted to actually threatening a customer. They found other ways to "deviate from sanctioned scripts," in the authors' terms. Some of them happen where the customer can't see or hear them:
  • 79 percent made fun of a customer to someone else
  • 72 percent lied to a customer
  • 65 percent made a customer wait longer than necessary
  • 61 percent ignored a customer
  • 52 percent acted rudely toward a customer
  • 43 percent argued with a customer
  • 34 percent yelled at a customer
  • 25 percent refused a reasonable customer request
  • 19 percent confronted a customer about a tip
  • 14 percent insulted a customer
  • 11 percent increased a tip without customer permission
  • 6 percent contaminated a customer's food
  • 5 percent threatened a customer

For the study, researchers Emily M. Hunter and Lisa M. Penney surveyed 438 employees in service jobs at restaurants and bars in and around an unnamed city in the Southwestern U.S. Their results are published in the journal Human Performance.

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