Bryan Caplan  

Who Treats You Worse?

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Why Not Protect Workers from C... Reclaiming Fairness as a Prece...
My impression is that customers treat workers worse than bosses.  But perhaps I'm wrong.  Question for all people who interact with both customers and bosses: who treats you worse?

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Cole writes:

When I worked as a lifeguard in highschool I think I was treated worse by my bosses than by customers. My bosses weren't bad at all, it was just that people had a surprisingly large amount of respect for a kid with a whistle and a weekend's worth of medical training.

I think you can find more exceptions like mine by just looking at jobs where the 'customer' is just a customer in the economic sense rather than in how the social relationship is perceived.

Other examples that might work: Doctors, EMTs, firefighters, or any other jobs that enjoy a higher than average status. The one time customer often treats you with respect or deference due to your position, but the boss that plays the repeat game will move towards his standard way of however they normally treat other people.

Chris H writes:

When I worked as a busboy during college I would say my boss treated me pretty well and I rather liked him. At the same time most costumers treated me pretty well too, though some were of course jerks.

Now, even assuming that the repeat interaction has no positive effect on behavior, I think it's likely that most people will have had customers treat them worse than their boss (with perhaps Cole's exceptions?), simply because your chance of getting an asshole when there is only one or two people in question (like your boss/bosses) is less than getting at least one jerk when there are hundreds or thousands of people you deal with. But that's focusing on the negative side. This same logic would obviously mean you are more like to have saintly customers than a saintly boss and the averages might even out between the two groups.

But I tend to be a pretty positive guy about most people I meet generally and people I know longer I'm more likely to view positively (after all knowing someone longer you're more likely to overcome the fundamental attribution error simply because it's easier to empathize with a person you know better). However, talking to the other people I worked with, most of the complaints they made were about customers not the boss (indeed the boss was sometimes a good ally against an unreasonable customer). Going by that I'd say most of the people who actually dealt with customers at my restaurant would probably say "customers were worse" at least at that job.

nl7 writes:

Customers, definitely. I think a lot of it has to do with the frequency of interaction. I've had several retail jobs, so lots of customer interaction breeds lots of bad customer experiences.

I worked in a fresh department at a grocery store, where the customers were worse than the boss for me. The boss could be annoying but largely did his own thing. (Counterpoint: one coworker claimed he made every female employee cry, so maybe six women.) But the customers ranged from unrealistic demands to outright rudeness.

Some people refused to believe what I said about our products or selection, more or less accusing me of lying - especially older customers. Some people got confused about the names and details of products, switching them around into nonexistent combinations, then got mad when I could not produce the fictional hybrids from their fevered imaginations. Others got mad when I showed them three products that each met three of seven bizarre criteria, but none of which met all the criteria. And people endlessly demanded the freshest and most recent product, hectoring me about how recently it had been made and even stepping BEHIND the counter (where insurance rules forbade them) to grab items off the shelf - even though that shelf often contained older products that were being pulled out.

Some people argued with me about the price of special custom goods - they would blindly pick all the most expensive items to order, then get offended when I told them what their dream order actually cost. One old man misinterpreted a discount sign, thinking that "50% off" meant a reduction off the sticker price; even though I explained three or four times that the sticker price was the correct price, and it included the 50% reduction, he refused to understand and returned the item in a huff to the cashier up front. I took an order from one woman who left a passive aggressive message for me after the other people in the department failed to properly fill the order.

I worked this job in 2005 and 2006, but I still have tons of complaints about customers. I only have a couple complaints about the various bosses, none of whom were perfect.

I have more gripes about customers when I delivered pizzas. Most of those revolve around poor tips. One couple ordered three pizzas with an average of five toppings each, plus tons of sides and dips and stuff. They had bounced checks twice before, and were warned that they had to pay cash rather than check, but still tried to make me take a check when I showed up. And in that case, near the end of the night, it was my boss the assistant manager who let me take home one of the unpurchased pizzas.

The pizza customers were much more pleasant than the grocery store customers. Not sure why. But once again, the customers were a source of more gripes than the bosses - though the bosses were definitely not perfect.

nl7 writes:

PS: customers and bosses both tend to think that they control you. But customers are more likely to be one-offs while bosses see you every day. So customers can be snotty then never see you again; bosses have to face you repeatedly.

Bosses also tend to have superior bosses that keep them in check; but if a lone customer wants to be rude, there's no superior over them to correct that behavior.

Kevin writes:

From my two customer-service jobs (one at a corner store, another at an amusement park):

The median customer treated me better than the median boss; the bottom 25% of customers ranged from 'a pain' to 'legitimately scary to deal with'. In comparison, the bottom quarter of bosses/managers I dealt with were, at worst, merely not-overly-personable. I've never had a really terrible boss, but I have had some spectacularly bad/abusive customers.

john hare writes:

A large part of the reason for me starting my own construction company was disagreement with bosses. I don't suffer fools gladly, and being ordered to do things the wrong way, the 'normal' way, or the way their boss said from 200 miles away without awareness of current job realities drove me nuts.

On the other hand, a large part of the reason I stay self employed is the ability to either fire customers or charge them for their bad choices, with it being my choice.

Having the ability to walk away from a bad customer is very liberating.

Adam writes:

Back when I was working in retail, it was unquestionably customers.

Bryan, While working as a reporter, I have never had to deal with "customers". The outsiders I dealt with were the people I talk to, or met, as a part of my job. They were a lot easier to deal with than the bosses. They were happy to talk to a reporter, though some of them ended the conversation when I disagreed with them, or asked questions that they disapproved of. It is true that the bosses have to deal with employees repeatedly, but that need not make then nicer. People are generally not excessively mean to strangers. The personal nature of relationships inside an office makes people more vulnerable to humiliation. Humiliation can make people extremely vengeful. The bosses generally have an upper hand.It is hard not to offend them because I have never worked with a well-read editor. Robin's view that Nerds are screwed over and over inside offices because they are good at co-operating, but extremely bad at conniving is undeniable true. People often blame you for taking a cynical take on mankind, but I think the reality is worse.

RickC writes:

My wife has nearly seventeen years experience working as a retail pharmacist. Along the way she's worked with numerous managers and supervisors and the relationships have varied greatly. Some of those bosses were great, some were nightmares. This last one played a huge role in motivating her to seek employment elsewhere.

It was the customers, however and their behavior that drove her to find a job in a hospital pharmacy where the interaction with patients/customers will be minimized and for the most part mediated through nurses and doctors.

One interesting observation from her experience (she often shares these stories with me, leaving out names of course), which I admit is anecdotal, is that the absolute worst behavior she's had to deal with on a continuing basis has been from people on some form of aid. I'll leave it to the psychologists as to why that would be, although we have our own theory.

ajb writes:

"Treat" is a highly subjective term. I would argue that a lot of what is "bad" treatment might well be considered just par for the job in other times. For example, is it mistreatment if customers expect you to be slavishly subservient and accommodating and to yell at you if you fail and that is understood as part of the job? Norms have changed as to what is permissible but not all customers may agree with current norms, etc. Conversely, many wait staff view it as awful treatment if they don't get the 18% tips they feel they "deserve" to have. I've been in lots of countries (especially in Europe) where mistakes by workers are met by shrugs when their mistakes are pointed out to them and they expect you to tolerate their inefficiency.

Glen Smith writes:

In my experience as both a cashier (albeit years ago) and a retail sales person (again some time ago), it was the bosses. Usually though because of they were unloading the stress of dealing with their bosses or the customers. Never had any big problems with customers. When I was a cashier back in the day, most customers just wanted to get their business done and get out. The only issue that ever occurred is when for some reason their transaction took too long.

RPLong writes:

Mine is a two-part answer:

When I worked in low-skill, customer-facing jobs, my bosses treated me much better than customers, but on the other hand, I had a great deal of control over how customers treated me. It's inevitable that I'd face the occasional jerk, but for the most part if I turned on the charm, most customers understood that I was trying to make the situation pleasant for them, and responded to me accordingly.

Now that I work in high-skill, customer-facing jobs, any poor treatment I experience from a customer is behavior that has been entirely enabled by my bosses. My supervisors set the tone for all customer interaction during the first meeting. Once the relationship is established, I have very little impact on how the customer chooses to treat me.

And here's the important part: In this latter case, if I attempt to chance the relationship with the customer - even for the better - I will face major retribution from my supervisors. That's business.

Alex N. writes:

I've never had a boss swear at me, yell at me in public, call me a liar, tell me to go back to my own country, shove me, call me a loser, throw purchased items at me (popcorn), explicitly threaten to have me fired, or ask me to pick up their glass eye ball. Customers have done all of those things and I can honestly say most of that made me a better employee for the desire of avoiding such abuses from customers in the future.

By the way, this was all when I was in high school working at a movie theater and women's shoe store. Those things have not happened in higher-skilled work environments.

Peter H writes:

I think there is a bit of an interplay between the quality of boss and quality of interaction with customers. I work in a law firm where I answer phones and deal with a lot of current and potential clients. In doing so, I have fairly clear parameters as to what kinds of cases we take and our fee structure for those cases. Since our business further is based on having an ongoing interaction with a client, it matters that the client is not going to make insane demands of us. So I am given substantial discretion to screen clients on the basis of being the type of client we want.

Since I have that discretion, it means I am much less prone to having to deal with crazy demands, since I have clear guidance to simply refuse those demands outright. The really bad customer situations I think always come when the customer is being unreasonable and the employee isn't allowed/able to do anything about it.

Good management can lead to better experiences with customers for employees by simply setting clear parameters for what to do or not do. And I think it makes a more profitable business as well, since clear parameters will keep customer expectations in line with reality, and let you avoid the small group of customers who are much more headache than they're worth.

Michael Stack writes:

Customers treat me worse, definitely. I've worked in consulting for a long time and my employer treats me very well and is genuinely concerned about me and my career.

Customers ("clients") will take advantage of me at any opportunity.

Brian writes:

I think a lot of bad customers come in with the attitude of "I am the customer, I'm always right, you are here to serve me, and so I don't need to see you as a real person, but rather an automaton here to do my bidding." I think the bad customers are generally people who don't have a lot of control over their own lives, or feel like they deserve more than what they've got, and so when given a chance to put someone beneath them, they treat them poorly. But I also think those types of customers are a minority, and most customers try not to be jerks to people that are just trying to make a living.

Bosses have to work with their employees every day, and if they don't at least try to respect their employees, they're not going to have employees for very long. It may be that it's a low skilled job and people are lined up around the block to replace those employees, but retraining even low skilled workers is usually more expensive than keeping workers that are already trained and qualified. And constantly having new employees in training is only going to result in more unhappy customers treating the employees poorly.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

The distinction between customers and bosses is a false one, since it depends on the situation.

To coin a phrase, one man's boss is another man's client.

How can you draw valid conclusions when the analytical distinction is so ambiguous? I don't think that you can.

KevinDC writes:

Customers, and I can say that with zero hesitation. I've been working at a bookstore for the past couple of years while working on an economics degree. I've had bosses whose personalities were not to my taste, but I've never been treated with any disrespect by any of them. A disturbingly large fraction of customers, however, treat me like garbage. A common occurrence is for a customer to ask for help finding a book. They don't know the name of the book, or the authors name. They aren't really sure when the book was released. And they don't know the genre or subject, but they did hear an interview with the unnamed author on some radio show a few weeks ago. Failing to immediately identify the book they are looking for has resulted in enduring tirades of profanity and accusations of incompetence. This is a regular occurrence, and only a small sampling of the overall experience. I've often had customers tell me to engage in biologically improbable acts of self copulation because I had the sheer gall to point out the coupon they want to use expired three months earlier.

Before going to school and working retail, I spent some years in the Marine Corps, so I think we can take for granted that I don't exactly have a thin skin. But at the risk of seeming hyperbolic, my years in the Marines and my experience in Iraq did much less to discourage me about human nature than retail experience. I can comprehend how people might behave when circumstances are the worst they can possibly be. It's seeing how genuinely nasty people will be in the face of (at worst) a minor inconvenience that I find depressing.

It is silly to be a misanthrope because other people do not read books, or because they believe in God, or had girl friends in high school. But, this is a pretty sound case for misanthropy, because I believe Kevin here: "At the risk of seeming hyperbolic, my years in the Marines and my experience in Iraq did much less to discourage me about human nature than retail experience. I can comprehend how people might behave when circumstances are the worst they can possibly be. It's seeing how genuinely nasty people will be in the face of (at worst) a minor inconvenience that I find depressing."

Pajser writes:

There are no honest people in market economy. The employers are the most successful of all thieves, and that's why it is more important to regulate them more than others.

MingoV writes:

I directed medical labs for twenty years. The lab techs worked for their supervisors who worked for me. The customers were the physicians who ordered the lab tests. Lab techs almost never received bad treatment from their bosses. But, the lab techs often were verbally abused by physician customers. The commonest reason for verbal abuse was a physician complaining about "late" results. The next most common reason was when a lab tech called (usually in the evening) a physician about a critical lab result. Some physicians are exceptionally abusive when disturbed. Each physician could choose which tests would have critical values and what those values would be. The lab techs were following each physician's custom rules and suffered verbal abuse anyway.

Kevin writes:

When I waited tables, customers on average treated me better than my bosses, but the worst customers treated me much worse than any boss I ever had or have had since.

Joshua Lyle writes:

@ Glen S. McGhee

But the context is explicitly clear: those relationships that are regulated by labor law and those that are not. Are you saying that labor laws are unconstitutionally vague?

Michael Stack writes:

Question for Bryan Caplan - when you ask us to "show our work", what exactly are you looking for? The specifics on how we are treated by both customers as well as our bosses?

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