Eye for an eye? Frontline service employee reactions to customer incivility

Regina Frey-Cordes, Meike Eilert, Marion Büttgen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Purpose: Frontline service employees (FSEs) face high demands of emotional labor when dealing with difficult, and sometimes even uncivil, customer behavior while attempting to deliver service with a smile. The purpose of this study is to investigate whether employees reciprocate uncivil customer behavior. The authors investigate two potential processes – ego threat and perceived interactional justice – and further address boundary conditions of this effect. Design/methodology/approach: The data for this paper were collected in three studies: one field experiment and two online experiments using adult samples. Hypotheses were tested and data was analyzed using ANOVA and regression-based modeling approaches. Findings: Findings from a field-experimental study and online experiments show that FSEs offer lower service levels to uncivil customers. The authors further find that this effect is mediated by a perceived ego threat and that employees’ regulation of emotion (ROE), as part of their emotional intelligence, attenuates the effect of perceived ego threats on service levels. Research limitations/implications: This study finds that perceived ego threat (but not perceived interactional justice) explains why employees respond negatively to uncivil customer behavior. Therefore, it offers an emotion-driven explanation of retaliatory behavior in frontline service contexts. Implications for theories focusing on service value co-destruction and customer incivility are discussed. Practical implications: The findings from this research show that ROE attenuates the impact of perceived ego threat on employee retaliatory behavior. Managerial implications include developing and training employees on emotion regulation. Furthermore, managers should identify alternative ways for restoring an employee’s ego after the employee experiences uncivil customer behavior. Originality/value: The authors propose and test two processes that can explain why employees reciprocate uncivil customer behavior to gain a deeper understanding of which processes, or a combination of the two, drive employee responses. Furthermore, the authors shed insights into boundary conditions and explore when employees are less likely to react to uncivil customer behavior while experiencing ego threat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)939-953
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Services Marketing
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 30 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited.


  • Customer incivility
  • Employee incivility
  • Frontline service employees
  • Retaliation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Marketing


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