Customer Incivility and Moderating Effects on Employee Well-Being

Customer Incivility and Moderating Effects on Employee Well-Being

Custom service is a daily interaction for some working class individuals. Current research suggests that negative customer-employee interactions are actually harmful for the employee’s psychological well being, causing negative health effects, stress, and emotional exhaustion. Cognitive appraisal theory suggests that if an event is perceived as less stressful or less threatening there will be fewer later negative outcomes.


Who conducted the study?

Kara A. Arnold of Business Administration at Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Megan M. Walsh of Business Administration at Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada


What was the aim of the study?

This study aimed to study the constructs that influence service employee well-being and it’s relationship with customer incivility.

This study approaches well-being from a cognitive appraisal theory of stress, or “the process through which the person evaluates whether a particular encounter within an environment is relevant to his or her well-being”. Cognitive appraisal determines if an event is irrelevant, harmful, or challenging. Cognitive appraisal theory shows why customer incivility is potentially negative, based on one’s perceptions and coping abilities.

There are several moderating factors for negative impacts of customer incivility. The study proposes factors as positive meaningful work, taking a non-threatening and empathetic perspective of incivility, and transformational leadership to help workplace environment and encourage emotion-focused coping mechanisms as influences that could help employees become more resilient to the negative effects of customer incivility. These factors help show potential benefits and coping techniques for employees.


What did they find?

Data was collected at two separate times, one month apart. The final sample was made up of 215 customer service employees, 48% of whom were female with an average age was 39.9 years. Industries of all kinds were represented from retail to construction to non-profits to healthcare. Customer incivility, transformational leadership, meaning, perspective taking, and psychological well-being were measured using surveys and questionnaires. Gender and certain emotions such as distress and fear were controlled for.

Hypothesis 1 stated that meaning will result in “the negative relationship between customer incivility and psychological well-being will be weaker.” Results showed that meaning had a direct and significant positive effect on well-being, and thus was not supported.

Hypothesis 2 stated that perspective taking will moderate the negative relationship between customer incivility and psychological well-being and make it weaker. Perspective taking had a direct positive effect on employee well-being but the interaction term was not significant, and the hypothesis was not supported.

Hypothesis 3 states that transformational leadership will moderate the negative relationship between customer incivility and psychological well-being, the relationship will be weaker for those who perceive their supervisor to be high in transformational leadership. Results showed that the relationship between customer incivility and well-being was significantly moderated by leadership. Transformational leadership appears to be able to buffer negative effects of incivility, especially when the incivility is high.


Why are these findings important?

Incivility is different from other types of social strife (i.e. aggression, bullying, etc.). Workplace incivility for many is a daily minor stressor, which when built up will cause major health issues. Incivility from customers has the chance to be even more damaging, given the social position of the employee, frequency of incivility, and the ambiguous nature of customer incivility. Studies have shown that “employees of racial minority who had a strong racial identity were more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion when experiencing customer incivility.”

Although meaning and perspective taking were not supported as moderators, they still both had positive impacts on employee well-being.

Transformational leadership was found to help moderate employee well-being and customer incivility, which supports prior research on leadership. This helps open the gate for new ways to improve employee well-being as we change the way we visualize leadership. A transformational leader can support, motivate, and empathize with an employee throughout the cognitive appraisal theory helping lessen the impact of customer incivility.  


Where can these results be applied?

These results can be applied to any workplace environment that deals with customer service. This does exclusively entail the traditional customer service jobs, jobs such as government work, entertainment, manufacturing, education, healthcare, banking, and retail were all surveyed in this study.  

Employees may go through stress caused by customer incivility, and this is an opportunity for those in leadership positions to lessen the blow. That can be by reminding the employee of their importance within the organization, instill confidence, help the employee to cope positively and productively, motivate, and stimulate personal growth.

In a Fast Company news article, Jonha Revesencio explains that studies have shown that employees are up to 12% more productive when happy at work when compared to their unhappy counterparts. Employees were also found to be more creative, more effective at problem solving, and better collaborators. Support, mindfulness, and satisfaction at the workplace are key to generating happy employees.



Arnold, K. A., & Walsh, M. M. (2015). Customer incivility and employee well-being: testing the moderating effects of meaning, perspective taking and transformational leadership. Work & Stress, 29(4), 362-378. doi: 10.1080/02678373.2015.1075234

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