Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
If you have the sense that we’re living in a ruder, more hostile world, you’re not alone. Some of that hostility has gotten a lot of attention—like the aggression directed toward flight attendants for enforcing mask mandates or the rise in assaults on health care workers—but what’s gotten less attention is that workers in nearly every sector say they’ve experienced a dramatic increase in abusive behavior from the public.
My inbox has filled up with workers reporting that while rudeness from the public has been on the rise for years, the pandemic accelerated it, and in the past two years, they’ve faced worse behavior than ever from customers (and in some cases their own colleagues).
Some of it undoubtedly is due to pandemic stress; most people on the planet have been pushed past their limits at some point in the past two years. Some may be due to the loss of social skills caused by increased isolation during the pandemic. But some of it, surely, is due to the change in our political discourse—today’s political forces are increasingly invested in keeping people angry and have normalized new levels of violent rhetoric (and actual violence), and we’re still reeling from a president who threw out normal rules of civility and gave people permission to be openly rude.
Here’s how that seems to be playing out at work, as reflected in the mail I receive:
• “I’ve been in retail over 10 years and there has been behavior from people in the last few months I’ve never seen, even in pandemic times, where it seems the convergence of war, rising energy prices, ongoing pandemic, etc. has resulted in some of the crappiest behavior from the public en masse I’ve been subjected to yet. … People all over are really being their worst right now.”
• “I work in health care and we have seen a significant uptick in behavior ranging from mean to openly verbally abusive to our nursing staff on the phone in the past nine months. We’ve had a record number of nurses driven to tears during calls with families and nearly weekly instances of a nurse having to hang up on an abusive family member. … Our nurses just don’t have the training to handle verbally abusive customers, nor the resilience in the era of staffing shortages to keep coming back to this experience week after week.”
• “I work in the freight industry, and it’s been terrible. Between the driver shortage, COVID, and manufacturing delays and shortages, everything is delayed, and people are just awful. We had an entire center closed because 75 percent of the staff had COVID, and I literally had a customer yell at me that COVID had been going on for 18 months at that point and we should have figured this out by now. I’ve been called names, sworn at, and just SCREAMED at. I’ve worked in this industry for 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve had good staff just get up and quit after a bad interaction because they’re just over it.”
• “I work in event-based fundraising and over the last few months, I’ve noticed that donors and volunteers have become much more demanding and willing to be rude. It honestly reminds me of some of the customers that I worked with in my retail job 10 years ago. When something doesn’t go exactly the way they want it to, I get voicemails and emails telling me what a horrible person I am and how I’m ruining their whole experience. And oftentimes, it’s over little things like a T-shirt got delayed in the mail or I can’t move a donation to someone else on their team. It’s been hard, I used to love working with our donors and volunteers, and now most days I dread it.”
• “I work in property management, so I’m used to receiving calls from unhappy tenants and testy vendors who are looking for their late payments. In the last year, though, the tenor of those calls has really risen to 11. Everyone is edgy and short-tempered, and all pretense of manners have evaporated. It’s really hard to maintain a cool and professional persona when a business conversation is peppered by raised voices, random accusations, and a seeming lack of trust. I feel like I’m still the same person I was—what the heck happened to everyone else?”
• “There is no doubt that we are seeing an increase in hostility and bad behavior in our industry (I’m a farmer). We’ve had customers scream at our sales team, and employees getting into a shoving matches (yes—plural). I’ve had several occasions where people call to say they are going to sue us because the piece of fruit they bought ‘tastes awful.’ Plus the amount of theft has gone way up. People steal things from our farm stand, or out of our fields, or even from employees’ belongings! And I’m not including that I’ve even had people approach my employees as they were working and threaten them (this happens in the fields, where it’s difficult to control who comes in and out of the area).”
• “I work as an EA in the largest health care system in my state, and employee safety has been a topic among executives and board members in the past six months. Rude behavior and physical violence from patients, family members, and visitors is at an all-time high. We’ve had to beef up security measures in our facilities in order to help protect our nurses, doctors, clinicians, receptionists, and other employees who come into contact with the public.”
Interestingly, I’m also hearing from people on the other side of these interactions, who recognize that their own behavior is part of the problem and have cited stress and exhaustion as the reasons why:
• “I’m certain I’ve been guilty of being short with people. And here’s the reason: I’m tired. Our workplace, like many, is understaffed and its lead to a workload that requires 60 hours a week on average to complete … and this has been going on for at least a year and management just keeps saying ‘be patient, these things take time.’ Well, I’m tired of being patient. I’m tired of having more stuff piled on my plate by managers and then saying, OK but what am I not going to do to make room for that (already doing 60-hour weeks) which they answer with … well, you just need to also do this. So no, I’m not nice about it anymore. I’ll probably be quitting this job within a year because I don’t see it improving and unfortunately sometimes that exhausted frustration spills into other aspects of my life. I don’t mean to do it, but it slips out.”
• “I will sheepishly admit that over the past two years I was rude to a few service employees/call center agents over things that were either out of their control or because of minor mistakes that we ALL make at some point. I was never like that before. Not an excuse, but the pandemic stress/isolation just got overwhelming and it manifested in me acting like a jerk a few times, unfortunately. One time (oof) because my coffee was made incorrectly and I SNAPPED at the teenager at the drive-thru, who probably wasn’t even the one who made it. I wish I’d gone back and apologized to her. I’ve worked in the service industry and I know how demoralizing and awful people can be and that makes me even more horrified.”
• “The pandemic isolation and fear has ratcheted up my anxiety level to 11. Little things at work that I used to be able to shrug off are a big deal. I am constantly in fight or flight mode over the most innocuous things. It’s exhausting and makes it really difficult to self-regulate. I fight the urge to be snarky or rude but some days I just have to take some time off to get myself together.”
• “I generally try to be as kind as possible—especially to those in IT or service jobs—but recently I have noticed frustration coming out in my interactions with people, particularly when I’m anxious about other things. Climate change, the pandemic, war, collapsing trust in government and institutions—it is all so large and outside of our control. So in the moment it feels not only ‘good,’ but that I’m entitled to feel and act with frustration. Obviously, this perception is untrue and harmful, but I have a sense that much of the aggression coming out in social interactions is an external manifestation of anxiety and feeling loss of control in our lives.”
As that last person identifies, a feeling of loss of control is likely a major factor in these explosions. Employers, though, do have some control and should be using it more often. Too many workers aren’t empowered to deal assertively with hostile customers and instead are told taking abuse is just part of their jobs. As a result, they’re burning out at faster rates—something you would think companies would care about in a labor market that makes it easier than normal to walk off the job in frustration. We should be seeing a move from companies to enforce limits on bad behavior toward their public-facing workers, but we’re not.
Employers likely have a limited window to act before abuse becomes more normalized as an acceptable way to interact with a business or internally with colleagues … and if they don’t do a reset now, it’s going to get a lot harder to combat once it’s more entrenched.