Monday Mornings with Madison

Customer Service Begins with Coworker Kindness

In most any business, employees are surrounded by customers, both external and internal.
The external customer is the person who uses the company’s services.  For Staples, it’s the parent purchasing back-to-school supplies for the kids.  For Chase Manhattan Bank, it’s the real estate magnate taking out a $20 million loan to purchase an office building.  On the other hand, the internal customer is anyone within the company who works with a specific employee or relies on a specific employee to get their job done.  It is the coworker who needs a clerk’s help to track down a file, or the manager who asks an employee to follow up with a customer or the two colleagues who work together to deliver a service.  Regardless of whether external or internal, each employee should treat every person with whom they interact with the same respect and courtesy.

However, some employees think that customer service begins with the external customer and ends with the company’s management.  Indeed, coworker kindness is at times reserved exclusively for the company’s C-Suite execs and other mucky mucks while other coworkers are treated with an appalling lack of respect, courtesy or cooperation.  A workplace might have an employee who demonstrates some rude, aggressive or even downright mean behavior to certain coworkers. This bad behavior might even go unchecked.  But, even if an employee’s bad attitude and manners are only demonstrated to or directed at coworkers – and never to external customers or management – it can still hurt a company’s bottom line.  Here’s how.

Various Types of Bad Apples

Employees who treat other coworkers poorly come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes the poor behavior is aimed at the company’s entry level staff… those at bottom of the proverbial totem pole.  Sometimes it is directed at the company’s weakest or most vulnerable employees; those who are ‘different’, handicapped or socially introverted.  Or, sometimes the disrespect is heaped on worker bees by a bad boss. And there are times the poor behavior is just a byproduct of a person with a lousy attitude.  Here are some types of bad apples and how it impacts a company’s profitability.

1.  Underling Bashers

The so-called “Underling Basher” is an employee who mistreats a coworker who is lower than him/her in the office pecking order, so to speak.  The underling may not necessarily report to the Underling Basher, but is at a lower level or rank in the corporate hierarchy.  An Underling Basher will treat interns and entry-level staff – anyone who has no power or connections — with disdain.  They are often dismissive, condescending and disrespectful.  Underling Bashers might be particularly callous and harsh to Newbies (newly-hired employees) who typically make mistakes while learning the ropes.  This is demoralizing to new employees and can result in their high turnover.  Managers should consider that, if a department keeps hiring new employees and those employees quit within a few days or weeks, there may be an Underling Basher in the ranks driving Newbies away.

COST: An Underling Basher makes it very hard for a company to staff up properly and ensure that there are qualified candidates available for promotion.  That can keep a company from growing and thriving.

2.  Office Bullies

Like a school bully, an office bully will repeatedly demonstrate behavior that is unwanted and unwarranted (a/k/a offensive, intimidating or humiliating) to a coworker and is repeated so as to have a detrimental effect upon a person’s dignity, safety, and well-being.  Office bullies sometimes mistreat others behind-the-scenes and their social and political savvy allows them to remain calm, cool and undetected.  But at times, office bullies will bully coworkers right under the boss’ nose and with tacit permission.  One study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that workplace bullies regularly receive positive evaluations from supervisors and achieve high levels of career success. The bullies’ social ability and political savvy enable them to exercise abuse – strategically – while being well liked among those in higher ranks.

COST: Workplace bullies can devastate both individuals and businesses.  Beverly Younger, Associate Professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, found that bullied employees feel anxious, stressed, and are more likely to quit their job, thus increasing costs related to employee turnover significantly.  The problem is that bullies cannot deliver to the organizational bottom line additional productivity equal to the cost of hiring and training all of the employees that the bully caused to quit.   The Wall Street Journal has reported that it costs upwards of twice an employee’s salary to find and train a replacement.  So, besides obviously being wrong, bullies that are causing high turnover are not worth the expense.  Moreover, bullies care most about advancement, not the company.  They manipulate their superiors to get ahead, and if they have the opportunity to advance above their bosses or move to another organization, they take it.

3.  Surly Sam / Sour Sally

While most any coworker will occasionally exhibit moodiness or have a bad day, there are cases of coworkers who are persistently in a bad mood.  With a Sour Sally, a “Good Morning” is met with a “What’s good about it?” response.  A casual “How are you?” is answered with a negative diatribe.  A Surly Sam or Sour Sally demonstrates a pervasive negativity that makes this type of coworker a misery.

COST: Given that the average employee spends more waking time at work with coworkers than at home with family and friends five out of seven days a week, working with a person who has a consistently bad attitude can be very unpleasant.  A Surly Sam can not only lower morale but also affects productivity.   What’s worse, bad moods are actually contagious.  Sigal Barsade, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, did several studies on “emotional contagions” in professional settings.  The studies found that a bad mood is contagious.  Not quite up there with swine flu, but negativity can spread throughout an office   It is a classic example of a bad apple spoiling the bunch.

4.  Browbeating Boss

Perhaps the most clichéd of all the types of coworker unkindness is the Browbeating Boss.  Indeed, there are tales of temperamental bosses who yell, insult, disrespect and mistreat employees.  In a 1984 Center for Creative Leadership study of corporate executives, nearly 75% of the subjects reported having had at least one intolerable boss in their career.  That’s because bosses were promoted to management because they excelled at an earlier job—not because they had experience managing others.  Moreover, this kind of behavior is thought to have increased with the Great Recession because uncertain economic times increased the willingness for companies to get results at any price, even if it meant pushing employees.  But, while a boss who mistreats employees is commonplace, it should never be acceptable because it is bad for business.

COST: There is a definite connection between negativity in the workplace and a negative balance sheet. A 2007 study by Professor Sigal Barsade at Wharton and Donald Gibson, an associate professor of management at the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University, found that expressing positive emotions and moods tends to enhance performance at individual, group and organizational levels.  And expressing negative emotions, in turn, damages performance at every level.

Whatever the scenario, bad manners and poor behavior by an employee toward another employee – especially in front of internal or external customers — should never be tolerated.  If nothing else, any time an external customer sees a company employee (exec, manager, worker, rookie or intern) mistreating another employee, the customer will view the experience negatively.  Customers will likely think that if a coworker is willing to treat a colleague — someone they see every day — that poorly, then they probably won’t hesitate to be disrespectful or mean to customers too.  In essence, it paints the entire company in a bad customer service light with just one brushstroke. Likewise, internal customers will avoid having to deal with any coworker that is obviously mean or belittling to other employees.  When unkind coworker behavior is allowed to flourish unchecked, it will keep external customers away and make employees think about working elsewhere.

The best companies make a point to recruit and hire people who are not just talented, but also genuinely kind.  Having nice employees is as important as having skilled employees, and top organizations know this.  After all, given how much companies spend to win customers and to recruit and train new employees, those companies know the value of happy employees.  The most successful companies understand that customer service begins and ends with coworker kindness and respect, and that’s good for the staff as well as the bottom line.

Quote of the Week

“Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people – your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.” Barbara Bush, for First Lady of the U.S.


© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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