When Fellow Customers Behave Badly: Witness Reactions to Employee Mistreatment by Customers

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In 3 experiments, we examined how customers react after witnessing a fellow customer mistreat an employee. Drawing on the deontic model of justice, we argue that customer mistreatment of employees leads witnesses (i.e., other customers) to leave larger tips, engage in supportive employee-directed behaviors, and evaluate employees more positively (Studies 1 and 2). We also theorize that witnesses develop less positive treatment intentions and more negative retaliatory intentions toward perpetrators, with anger and empathy acting as parallel mediators of our perpetrator- and target-directed outcomes, respectively. In Study 1, we conducted a field experiment that examined real customers’ target-directed reactions to witnessed mistreatment in the context of a fast-food restaurant. In Study 2, we replicated Study 1 findings in an online vignette experiment, and extended it by examining more severe mistreatment and perpetrator-directed responses. In Study 3, we demonstrated that employees who respond to mistreatment uncivilly are significantly less likely to receive the positive outcomes found in Studies 1 and 2 than those who respond neutrally. We discuss the implications of our findings for theory and practice.

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