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 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, 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.


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.


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!


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 Get Coworkers to Step-up Their Service

A question I often receive from customer service professionals is "How do I get my coworkers to improve their service?

It can be frustrating to feel like you are giving it your all while colleague settle for mediocrity (or worse).

Getting your peers to change is tricky. Approach a colleague the wrong way and you risk harming the relationship. Do nothing at all and things will likely stay the same.

That doesn't mean you are powerless. Here are three strategies you can try.

Image source: BigStockPhoto

Image source: BigStockPhoto

Be the Model

"Who was it?!" the woman demanded. "Who is making us look bad?!"

I was facilitating a customer service workshop and was sharing the results of a secret shopping test I had conducted the night before. Four out of five employees I had shopped didn't use any of the company's service standards in my interaction.

This particular employee was incensed. She wanted to know who it was because she felt embarrassed to get such a poor report.

Sadly, she was one of the four people who I had visited who performed poorly. She didn't recognize me because she was too busy chatting with a coworker when I had been her customer the night before.

If you want your coworkers to improve, start by taking a long, hard, figurative look in the mirror.

You can't expect your colleagues to step up their collective game if you aren't doing the same thing. This means you need to be the model of outstanding customer service.

Aside from giving you more credibility with your peers, it’s inspiring to others when they see someone else going the extra mile. It creates subtle but powerful positive peer pressure for them to serve at a higher level.


Identify Shared Challenges

High performing teams work together to solve problems.

For example, a Tier 2 technical support team handled issues that were beyond the scope of expertise for the Tier 1 team. One problem was Tier 1 reps often unnecessarily transferred calls to the Tier 2 team that they should have resolved on their own.

Rather than build silos and cast blame, members of both teams met to identify the top reasons calls were transferred and then mark which ones could be prevented. A Tier 2 rep then put together a job aid that showed Tier 1 reps how to handle those issues on their own.

This approach solved a problem, but it also fostered a sense of teamwork between members of both teams.

Another opportunity is to share common issues with your boss.

Many employees assume that bosses are apathetic toward poor service if they don't take any action to correct it. My research indicates there might be another reason: most employees don’t pass along customer complaints!

The idea isn't to tattle on your coworkers. 

The point is to tell your boss about the top customer complaints you hear, along with some ideas or suggestions for improvement. It might be a policy that customers don't like or a common product defect.

Whatever it is, sharing customer insight with your boss may give him or her needed information to enlist the entire team in taking action.


Ask For Advice

One customer service professional, we'll call him David, wrote to me and explained that he was 26 and had just a few years of experience. He explained that he was the youngest person on his team, and most of his peers were 40 years old or older.

My suggestion to David was to approach his more experienced colleagues and ask them for advice on handling a particular customer service challenge.

Why? Two reasons.

First, asking a coworker for advice is a sign of respect. It shows them you value their wisdom and experience. And that respect makes them more likely to respect you back.

Second, it's human nature that we are our own most credible source of information. If I ask you for a suggestion on handling a particular situation, you'll probably give me a good answer but you'll also be more likely to remember to take your own advice the next time.



In many of the organizations I wrote about in The Service Culture Handbook, leaders cultivate a culture of positive peer pressure. 

Coworkers recognize each other for great performance. They cover for each other without question, which creates a social need for reciprocity (I've got your back, you've got mine). Veteran employees guide new hires to help them succeed too.

You can do your part by trying some of the techniques outlined above. Here's one more bonus technique:

Take a moment to recognize a coworker for doing something well.

Chances are, they'll appreciate you letting them know their contributions are valued. They'll be more likely to do it again. And, there's a chance they'll be a bit more receptive when you have some constructive feedback to share!