Most of us know firsthand how squabbling and sniping can erode a team. But new research shows that when employees are rude to one another in front of customers, businesses might end up making enemies of their patrons.

The Findings

In a recent study, researchers found that when customers witness employees being disrespectful to one another—yelling, using profane language, or openly criticizing another's job performance—customers not only get mad, but they often try to punish the company in some way. Why does this behavior get customers so riled? It has to do with their deontic logic, or personal moral beliefs about how people should be treated, says Christine Porath, a management professor at Georgetown University and co-author of the study. "It's not all about the customer's own experience," says Porath, who co-authored the study with Deborah MacInnis and Valerie S. Folkes, two marketing professors from the University of Southern California. "They objected to what they perceived as unfair behavior toward the employee."

The Methodology

The study was based on a series of customer surveys. In one, respondents were asked to recall a time when they had witnessed an employee being uncivil to another worker. Ninety-two percent of the respondents said they had subsequently made negative comments to other people about the company, and nearly half of those surveyed said they were less willing to repurchase the company's products or services.

In other surveys, participants were asked to imagine that they were with a group of friends in a restaurant. They were told to envision their waitress being publicly scolded by her manager for making a mistake, with remarks like, "C'mon, what are you, stupid?" and "Can't you be more careful?" Many respondents said the manager's behavior not only would dampen their dining experience but was simply wrong. Participants said they would have been less angry if the waitress had been reprimanded in private, but, in either case, respondents expressed a desire to punish both the manager and the restaurant.

The Takeaway

Hostility in the workplace often has a way of trickling down to customers, whether or not they witness it directly, says Danny Meyer, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City. That's why you won't get good service from businesses that resemble the reality show Hell's Kitchen, he says. "The chef is yelling in the kitchen with the misplaced expectation that, somehow, the waiter is going to feel good when they deliver the food to the guest," Meyer says. "That's just not how it works."

Business owners may not be able to monitor every employee interaction, but they can create cultures in which respect is valued. Once a month, Meyer, whose company owns 26 restaurants, including popular New York eateries such as Shake Shack and Union Square Cafe, invites all recent hires to a meeting. There, he emphasizes the importance of being hospitable to both customers and co-workers. And Meyer cautions against what he dubs skunklike behavior. "When a skunk is angry, it sprays the thing it's angry at," says Meyer, "but everybody else within a 3-mile radius has to smell it."

How Rude!

Customers rated their reactions to employees on a scale of 1 to 7.

Employee is... Rude to me Rude to another customer Rude to another employee
Level of anger 5.67 4.99 4.87
Likelihood of another purchase 2.7 3.25 3.25
Level of interest in the company 3.3 3.29 2.6