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The Rise In Abuse Of Service Workers.

Posted on 4th August 2022

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This article on the BBC discusses a rising problem in the modern world: the increase in the abuse of service workers.

We have all read about such incidents, and in many cases witnessed some ourselves; some of you may even be guilty of doing it yourselves, despite, perhaps, feeling guilty about it afterwards So, why is it happening ever more frequently?

The article cites a couple of possible explanations:

  • 'Scapegoat theory' and power dynamics,
  • Powerlessness and the pandemic.

I have a couple of points to add to the discussion:

  1. Service workers are representatives of their employers, a fact that the article seems to overlook. If a customer is unhappy with the service that they receive, their grudge is with the company, but the service worker they are dealing with is the company's representative, and must expect that the dissatisfied customer will take their frustration out on them, irrespective of whether they have the power and authority to do what the customer expects.
  2. Increased powerlessness of service workers. Service workers have much less power to help the customer than was once the case; they have less discretionary authority. This is result of their scope and authority being constrained by their employer, in the form of processes which define what they may do, and how, often enforced by the computer tools that the service worker uses for their job. This is a failure of management, whereby the service worker has been given responsibility (to satisfy the customer) which is not matched by the appropriate authority; it is a basic management principle that authority and responsibility should be aligned. In a sense, by having misalignment between authority and responsibility, companies are setting up their service workers to be abused.
  3. Reducing levels of service. This is a common trend in many industries, from coffee shops to banks, telecoms service providers and airlines. Sometimes the reduced service is due to fewer staff (banks are a prime example of this), which increase waiting times, and make the service workers stressed and rushed. Sometimes it is due to deliberately less flexible contract terms (mobile phone and Internet providers are some of the worst offenders in this respect). If a customer gets worse service than before, of course they are likely to get upset and abusive more often. Sometimes, things that used to be free (like choosing your airline seat) now usually incur additional charges.
  4. More demanding customers and their feeling of entitlement. Customers of many industries (the prime example is probably the catering industry - coffee shops, restaurants, etc.) have definitely become more demanding: ever more complex cups of coffee being ordered, people ordering variations (like egg-white omelettes) of menu items, etc., which is diametrically opposed to companies' attempts to streamline their businesses by standardising what they offer. The growth in customers' feelings of entitlement means that they do not even realise that they are being demanding and unreasonable.
  5. More easily offended customers. People nowadays are much more easily offended by so many things - using the wrong pronoun, using language that the customer finds offensive (for whatever reason), assuming the wrong gender identity (e.g. when selecting clothes for a customer to try on), the service worker wearing fur or even drinking bottled water - the list is endless, and growing every day. If the customer is offended by the service worker, the conversation can much more easily cross the line into abuse.

Given the number of different issues at play here, there can be no single solution. Also, clearly, some of the causes lie with companies, and some with customers. Nevertheless, a bit of patience and tolerance will go a long way to easing the problem.