The Hidden Link Between Customer Mistreatment and Employee Attrition

By Ted Lango, Intradiem

In the complex landscape of Workforce Management, understanding the factors that contribute to employee turnover is more crucial than ever. One often overlooked aspect is the role of customer mistreatment. In this article, I’ll share insights from a study that explores this relationship and offers actionable solutions for reducing turnover, with a particular focus on automation and the role of supervisors.

The Problem: Customer Mistreatment

Customer mistreatment is an unfortunate reality in many service organizations. According to a study published in the Journal of Service Research, employees who experience interpersonal injustice from customers are more likely to have negative emotions, leading to emotional exhaustion. While the problem statement may seem obvious, establishing a base understanding of customers’ role in employee attrition is essential to advancing the maturity of our WFM practices.

The Role of Supervisors: Mitigating Effects

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The study establishes and tests supervisor justice, as illustrated in Figure 1. “Fair interpersonal treatment from supervisors reduces the tendency for employees to generally perceive negative emotions in response to customer unfairness, thereby reducing subsequent employee emotional exhaustion and voluntary turnover.” This quote from the study highlights the importance of fair treatment from supervisors in mitigating negative emotions and turnover.

“Supervisors can help service employees replenish the resources customer demands consume, demonstrating the important role that supervisors have in helping service workplaces retain service employees.” This further emphasizes how supervisors can actively help employees deal with customer mistreatment.

Practical Applications for Supervisors

“Employees who perceive they are being fairly treated by supervisors experience fewer negative emotions related to customer interpersonal injustice because fair treatment from supervisors provides socioemotional resources to employees.” Based on this, supervisors should:

Maintain regular check-ins with employees to discuss issues.

Probe for whether challenging customer interactions are creating negative emotions.

Advocate for microbreaks, employee recognition, and regular off phone development time.

When needed, partner with a company’s resources for emotional support.

“Supervisors should be aware that fair treatment of employees can lessen negative outcomes, including voluntary turnover, associated with customer interpersonal injustice.” This underlines the financial benefits of fair treatment, backed by study findings.

The Role of WFM: Enable Support with Automation

Conventional WFM approaches remain rigid and reactive, with techniques that struggle to adapt to real-time demands. Once at the forefront of industry practices, traditional WFM methods must now evolve to keep pace with the accelerating and unpredictable technological changes we are witnessing. Pre-planned off-phone activities frequently must be canceled and/or rescheduled due to the service level challenges. As a result, legacy WFM techniques expose agents to the detrimental effects of challenging customer interactions, leading to decreased employee morale.

In response, industry leaders are shifting towards a WFM strategy that is adaptable, responsive, and deeply integrated with automation technologies. Advancing from level 2 to level 3 of the WFM maturity curve by harnessing automation unlocks significant benefits.

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Automation provides WFM teams with sophisticated techniques that continuously fine-tune supply and demand, systematically reclaiming time increments. This reclaimed time is a precious asset that can be redistributed to frontline agents and supervisors. Automation creates opportunities to address a critical but often neglected issue: the toll that challenging customer interactions can take on agent well-being.

Ted Lango provides thought leadership on next-generation WFM practices at Intradiem. He may be reached at


Danielle D. van Jaarsveld, David D. Walker, Simon Lloyd D. Restubog et al. (2019). Unpacking the Relationship Between Customer (In)Justice and Employee Turnover Outcomes: Can Fair Supervisor Treatment Reduce Employees’ Emotional Turmoil?

Journal of Service Research,