The Social Dimension of Service Interactions: Observer Reactions to Customer Incivility

Alexander P. Henkel*, Johannes Boegershausen, Anat Rafaeli, Jos Lemmink

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Service interactions run a gamut from an instrumental self-focus to full social appreciation. Observing another customer’s incivility toward a frontline employee can emphasize social concerns as guiding principles for the observer’s own service interaction. Five studies test these dynamics; the results reveal that an incivility incident leads observers to prioritize social over market concerns. This reprioritization becomes manifest in a subsequent service interaction through increased feelings of warmth toward the employee who experienced incivility. In turn, feelings of warmth prompt observers to provide emotional support to the affected employee. Yet such prosocial inclinations are less likely when an employee is held responsible for or reciprocates incivility. Finally, this article also examines the effects of different employee reaction strategies on observers’ inferences about the employee and the service firm, showing that observers are most positively disposed toward the employee and the firm when the former reacts to incivility with a polite reprimand. Together, the results suggest that, contrary to past theorizing, observing customers may contribute to employee well-being, contingent on appropriate employee responses. Notably, the commonly prescribed polite, submissive employee reaction that requires emotional labor may not be the most desirable reaction—neither for the employee nor for the firm.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)120-134
JournalJournal of Service Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


  • customer incivility
  • third-party observers
  • employee reaction
  • market versus social mind set
  • consumer misbehavior

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