How Customer Service is Being Ruined by Toxic Coworkers

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.

A coffee shop employee parked so far over the line that she blocked my car door.

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:

Graph illustrating that 22% of employees work with a toxic coworker. The number jumps to 83% for customer service employees.

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

  • Harassment

  • 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.

Poor Hiring

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.

Poor Leadership

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:

  • Young workforces

  • Monotonous work

  • Decentralized workplaces

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

Grace Judson is a leadership geek, trainer, coach, and consultant. She wrote a useful guide called The Five Most Challenging Employee Types—and how to manage them. (Download your free copy here.)

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.


Personality Traits That Inspire the Most Teamwork

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

A customer service leader recently confided in me that she was having a difficult time hiring new employees.

Sure the job market is really tight right now, but there was an additional challenge with her company's hiring process. The HR department used a pre-hire personality assessment to screen all applicants. Each applicants' results were compared to an "ideal" profile for the job that was supplied by the assessment company.

As an experiment, the leader had her existing employees take the assessment. She was surprised to find that very few of her current employees fit within the assessment company's ideal profile. This meant some of her best employees never would have been hired if HR had been using the assessment then.

A few months ago, I wrote about the danger of using personality assessments to screen job candidates. The bottom line is they are often a poor predictor of success.

So how do you build a cohesive team?

I've uncovered some research that identifies what traits make a team successful. You might be surprised to learn that individual intelligence and talent did not make the list. 

Here's what did.

A confident team of professionals.

Social Sensitivity

A study from Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone found that individual intelligence did not correlate well with team performance. What did matter in their experiments was social sensitivity.

Here's a helpful definition of social sensitivity from AlleyDog.com, which is a website for psychology students.

Social sensitivity describes the proficiency at which an individual can identify, perceive, and understand cues and contexts in social interactions along with being socially respectful to others. 

I recently wrote about the exceptional service culture at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. In retrospect, part of the museum’s hiring process is screening for social sensitivity.

  • Prospective applicants check in with an employee named Gary at the visitor center. How people treat Gary and interact with him is an important part of the interview process.

  • Lianne Morton, the museum's HR director, likes to walk people out after the interview. People tend to let down their guard during that brief conversation, giving Morton a glimpse of their true personality.

Other customer service leaders invite applicants to sit down with a few of their potential coworkers for an informal conversation about the work environment. It's a mini-test of how the candidate will contribute to the team dynamics.

Managers can also promote greater social sensitivity among their existing employees.


Dependability

There's something reassuring about working with someone whose word is bond. If they say they'll get something done, they do it, and do it well. You can trust someone who is dependable.

A study from Google found five dynamics that were shared among its highest performing teams. The top dynamic was psychological safety, where team members can do their best work and even take risks without fear. One of the best ways to create this type of environment is to stack the team with socially sensitive members (see above).

Dependability was the number two dynamic shared among Google’s highest performing teams.

I recently wrote about the reasons why some employees are always late. When I talk to customer service leaders, chronic absenteeism and tardiness is frequently a top challenge. 

There are a number of ways to screen job applicants for dependability.

One company I worked with had an office that was difficult to find. Whenever a manager called an applicant to schedule an in-person interview, the manager deliberately avoided mentioning directions to the office. Successful applicants either asked for directions (which were readily provided upon request), or they were resourceful enough to find their way to the office in time for their interview.

People who arrived late because they got stuck in traffic, couldn't find parking, couldn't find the office, or generally didn't anticipate the difficulty of getting there were not considered for the job.

You can also screen applicants for dependability by checking references. Ask former bosses and coworkers to describe the employees' work habits or scan their LinkedIn recommendations. You'll often see indicators of a person's dependability.

Another company gives applicants a small assignment and a short deadline. Applicants who turn in quality work by the deadline demonstrate their dependability, while applicants who can't make it in time or don't produce a quality project are not considered.

Finally, managers need to be a bit tough about dependability. 

Employees who are allowed to be chronically late to work, or are frequently given extensions on work deadlines can develop bad habits quickly. Starting meetings late to accommodate people who don't show up on time tells people that showing up on time doesn't matter.

Like so many traits, you need to demonstrate dependability as a leader if you want your employees to do the same thing.

Purpose

Here are all five dynamics of successful teams from Google's study:

  1. Psychological Safety

  2. Dependability

  3. Structure & Clarity

  4. Meaning of Work

  5. Impact of Work

We've already covered numbers one and two. The remaining three all boil down to having a clear purpose at work. You can instill a sense of purpose among your team members through a clear and compelling customer service vision.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. 

  • It provides clarity about what everyone is working towards, 

  • instills a sense of meaning in the work we do each day, 

  • and helps us understand the impact we are having on our customers.

I detail a process for creating a customer service vision, getting your employees engaged, and aligning work around your purpose in The Service Culture Handbook.

Here's an overview of the main steps:

  1. How to write a customer service vision statement

  2. Three questions that get to the heart of employee engagement

  3. Customer service alignment assessment

Not coincidentally, creating a customer service vision statement makes an outstanding team building exercise!


Conclusion

Customer service leaders often focus too much on the individual.

They place job ads looking for "rockstar" employees. Incentives are created for individual performance. Employees are given individual scorecards and top achievers are recognized. 

Yet customer service is often a team effort. So if you want better teamwork, it's important to carefully consider how you build your team.


How to Make Vision Writing Your Next Team Building Exercise

Team building seems to be a hot topic right now.

I've heard from quite a few Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers lately who are trying to create team cohesion and motivate a group of employees. They contact me to ask if I know of any good exercises or resources.

There's another group of subscribers who have also contacted me. They've heard me talking non-stop about the importance of having a customer service vision, and they're finally ready to create one. The big question is, where should they start?

My answer to both groups is the same. The ultimate customer service team building exercise is writing a customer service vision.

Facilitator leading a team building meeting.

Why Separate Initiatives Are Doomed to Fail

Many years ago, I was asked to facilitate a half-day customer service workshop to help build team cohesion. There were several leaders who were supposed to participate, but they all found various reasons not to be there. 

It still seemed like the class had gone well, until two employees approached me afterwards. Both were visibly upset and one was in tears. 

They told me they appreciated the class, but didn't believe it would change anything. It was their managers that were the problem. The organization's leaders didn't provide clear direction and often made decisions that were in direct conflict with each other. 

It was a tough conversation because I tried to be supportive, but I couldn't offer any real solutions. The people who could, the organization's leaders, had chosen not to be there.

The experience reminded me that a cohesive team is a group of people working together towards the same goal. A half-day workshop, a ropes course, or a motivational speaker might instill a temporary shot of camaraderie, but it won't fix a fundamental lack of shared vision.

And a vision can't just be something that's proclaimed by the executive team. 

I've talked to many customer service leaders recently who want to create a vision, but for some reason do not want to involve their employees. The problem with this approach is it's not a shared vision. Employees aren't really given a chance to buy-in.

This may be the top mistake service leaders make.


How Vision Writing Builds Teamwork

Think about high performing teams that you admire. 

Perhaps its a team you have been on, or one you work with. It might be a well-known company with a strong service culture. It could even be your favorite sports team.

The common thread through all of those teams is they have a shared goal that everyone is working towards. A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page, so it's a team-builder by design. 

I've outlined the process I use to help companies and teams create their own unique customer service vision in this step-by-step guide. Here are some highlights that illustrate how it makes for a perfect team building activity.

Step 1: Gather Input. The first step is to gather everyone's input on what the vision should be. This allows everyone on the team to have a voice. In my experience, there are always some clear themes that emerge, which shows the team has more in common than people realize.

Step 2: Write the Vision. I've learned through trial and error that 7-10 people is the optimum group size for writing a customer service vision. Your team may be much larger than this, which is okay. What's important is those 7-10 people are a representative sample of the various roles and levels within the group. The group assembles and writes the vision statement based on the input gathered in step one, so everyone is represented even if they aren’t physically in the room.

Step 3: Socialize the Vision. Once a draft vision statement is written, you want to share it with key influencers who weren't there. The idea is to get their buy-in, or if necessary, make a few minor tweaks. (I've never had to change more than a word or two.) From there, you share the vision with the entire team and begin using it as a basis for ongoing employee engagement.

The end result, if you follow the process, is you have a shared vision that becomes the starting point for all future teamwork. Make sure everything you do is pointed towards that vision, and you'll be continuously reinforcing the team concept.

Are You Stuck?

Here are a few resources to help if you're still stuck after reading this post: