University Researchers Ask: Did the Waiter Spit in Your Soup?

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Plate with meal in waiter's hands
By Robert McGarvey

You have heard the stories. Aggrieved wait staff, it is whispered, get back at nasty and overdemanding customers by defiling their food.

We now know more of the truth, and it is not pretty, thanks to a study by Baylor University business school professor Emily Hunter along with University of Houston psychology professor Lisa Penney titled "The Waiter Spit in My Soup! Antecedents of Customer-Directed Counterproductive Work Behavior." That paper ran in Human Performance and has created a stir. Word of advice: Stop reading this if you are eating. Especially in a restaurant.

Hunter, in an interview, said her research team gathered data in a variety of ways -- anecdotally, by distributing questionnaires (some 438 according to Hunter), and in some cases she personally visited restaurants, sat in employee break rooms and quizzed wait staff, hostesses and bartenders about how they settled the score with unpleasant patrons.

What Restaurant Employees Think of Customers

This research, she said, falls within a hot field of the moment, "counterproductive work behavior" -- that's everything from sabotaging output to stealing. But as a onetime waitress herself, Hunter said she "had witnessed bad things." She didn't elaborate on what but, when it came time for her to do her first big research project after earning her doctorate, she knew exactly what she wanted to find out: just how common is it that restaurant workers do nasty stuff to customers and why?

Understand that the research focused on sit-down restaurants, not fast food outlets. These are places with real waiters and waitresses and, apparently, quite a few have grievances about us.

Here's the worst news: 6 percent of restaurant employees said they had "contaminated" a customer's food. The survey did not specify how they contaminated, but in an email that came into Mainstreet from wait staff, perhaps the most common contaminants appear to be the easiest such as spitting in food, deliberately dropping it on the floor and re-plating it, and -- according to a former waitress who asked for anonymity because she did not want to cause trouble for her onetime colleagues - "I've actually heard of one server wiping down the garbage pail with someone's steak." Others report witnessing other waiters and waitresses rubbing food on their private parts before serving it to customers.

But don't exaggerate the frequency of such incidents. Etiquette expert Amy Alkon said such incidents are rare. "The reality is, you have to be a pretty awful person who gets a pretty awful server to have that done to you."

The Texas academic research says similar. According to Hunter and Penney, the vast majority of restaurant employees did not admit to "contaminating" food. Nor had they witnessed it. But servers know how to get even nonetheless.

Other Ways to React

What many did to blow off steam was poke fun at unpleasant customers in talks with co-workers -- 79 percent said they did that. Also high on the list was ignoring unpleasant customers -- 61 percent -- or making the diner wait unreasonably long for coffee refills, dessert and the check -- 65 percent.

Some are more aggressive: 14 percent said they had insulted unreasonable diners; 11 percent said they had increased their own tips without the customer's knowledge; and 5 percent said they had threatened guests.

Hunter elaborated that in most cases the behaviors that were reported appeared to be ways to cope with stressful situations. "You take your aggressions out on the easiest target and, in a restaurant, that's usually the customer," she said.

As for the biggest takeaway from the research, Hunter said it is obvious: "Be a good customer." What that means is: don't upset the people who are bringing you the food you plan to put in your mouth. If you don't like something -- the steak is too salty, the salad has too much dressing -- by all means, speak up. But do it respectfully and with full awareness that the food you will get has usually been prepared out of your sight. And now you know the real risks of that.
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