My favorite local coffee shop took a turn for the worse a few years ago.
A new barista was hired who was rude and abrupt with customers. She made frequent mistakes that caused extra work for her coworkers and created unnecessary service failures. The barista was persistently negative and refused to take responsibility for the problems she caused.
One day, the barista arrived to work and parked her car so far over the line that I couldn't open my car door. I went back into the coffee shop to ask her to move it. She begrudgingly did, but never apologized.
“I was running late,” was all she said.
A new study reveals this is a common issue. A widespread number of toxic employees are working in customer service jobs—far more than in other professions. And it's creating a big problem for both customers and coworkers.
What the study on toxic employees revealed
The survey was conducted by my company, Toister Performance Solutions, in July, 2019.
More than 1,500 adults in the United States were asked if they work with at least one toxic coworker in their current job. The results are startling:
Customer service employees are nearly four times as likely to have a toxic coworker.
Toxic employees negatively affect the organization. They consistently engage in inappropriate behavior that makes them difficult to work with. This includes:
Poor customer service
Theft and fraud
A separate study conducted in 2015 by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor found that 1 in 20 customer service employees were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.
Toxic employees can also harm team dynamics. According to Melanie Proshchenko, Founder and Principal Consultant at Honeycomb Team Solutions, "One toxic team member can infect the entire team by turning otherwise positive, unsuspecting teammates negative."
The barista was a good example.
Her attitude put her coworkers on edge. They stopped being their usual, friendly selves whenever she was working. When she left her job after just a few months, the remaining employees quickly returned to their previous, customer-friendly habits.
Why customer service employees are more likely to be toxic
There are a number of explanations for the high number of toxic customer service employees, including poor hiring, poor leadership, and a dangerous combination of risk factors.
Imagine you had a hiring process that accidentally made you more likely to hire a toxic employee. Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening at many companies.
For example, many customer service job postings advertise a quest for "rockstar" employees. The Housman and Minor study found that self-regarding people who consider themselves to be rockstars are 22 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.
Side note: I’ve put together a list of resources to help you improve your hiring process.
Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO and Founder of Civility Partners, shares that many leaders are ill-equipped to handle a toxic employee.
"In my experience, there are so many toxic employees because managers don’t know how to address the behavior. Coaching bad behavior into good isn’t a skill people automatically possess–it requires training, practice, and empowerment from the organization. If the organization doesn’t provide the tools and encouragement for managers to coach toxic behavior, then managers will attempt to work around it instead."
One leader is so afraid of confronting a toxic manager who reports to her that she's resolved to wait until the manager retires—more than two years from now! Meanwhile, that manager's team has the highest turnover and the worst customer service in the organization.
Mattice Zundel also points out that some people may engage in toxic behavior, like workplace bullying, without even realizing it. These employees won't change if their boss doesn't address it.
Dangerous Risk Factors
A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined the risk factors that contribute to workplace harassment.
Customer service work itself was one of the risk factors identified. Customer service employees in some industries, particularly hospitality, are routinely subjected to harassment by customers. Some employees begin to accept inappropriate behavior as normal and can see it as tacit approval to act inappropriately themselves.
The EEOC study identified several other risk factors that are common in customer service work environments:
The next time you read a headline about a fast food or retail employee doing something terrible, like this, this, or this, there’s a good chance the employee was young, bored, and working far away from corporate oversight.
How to prevent employees from becoming toxic
Organizations can address this issue by focusing on teamwork over individual achievement, setting positive examples, and preventing toxic behavior from spreading.
Focus on Teamwork
Judson suggests emphasizing teamwork.
"Toxicity can develop in an environment where individual achievement is valued over team accomplishment. It’s important to acknowledge outstanding contribution at the individual level–and it’s equally important to avoid creating competition between individuals by setting team goals and offering whole-team rewards."
My own research on customer-focused teams backs this up. I've discovered that team-oriented metrics are one of three criteria for effective goals.
Set a Positive Example
Melanie Proshchenko emphasizes the need for leaders to set a positive example.
"Get clear about what you expect and let the team dig deep into what that looks like in practice. Tired of backstabbing? Lots of complaining in the halls? Folks whining about petty problems? Define the opposite, positive, specific versions of the behaviors that are bringing the team down and showcase them to the team."
Leaders are often guilty of setting a poor example, and then wrongly expecting their team to do the opposite. For example, frontline employees frequently say the wrong thing to customers because their leader accidentally trained them that way.
One way to set a positive example is to establish a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page, including the leader.
Prevent Toxic Behavior from Spreading
Companies are often too slow to fire people who routinely engage in toxic behavior.
Toxic employees can easily infect others. Research from Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, reveals that when people around you are engaging in inappropriate behavior, it makes it more likely that you will do the same.
According to the Housman and Minor study, adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to get fired for toxic behavior.
Leaders must take action as soon as they spot inappropriate behavior. Allowing it to go unchallenged almost always results in worse behavior and negative consequences.
What's been your experience with toxic customer service employees? Please leave a comment or drop me a line.