The rules enforcers: When front line employees have to deal with misbehaving customers


Rules are important. Without rules, there is no way humanity would have survived this long. The level of chaos that society would have had to deal with would have been too much. Every society needs rules. Rules keep us sane. Rules help us relate well with each other. It goes without saying therefore that, without rules, there will be very little to differentiate us from the animals in the wild.

However, rules are also broken, occasionally. Drivers regularly flout traffic regulations. Students frequently break school rules. Even children repeatedly go against the rules set by their parents. Someone has said, tongue-in-cheek, that rules are made to be broken. Others have argued that it is by breaking rules that better rules are formed. For whatever reason, rules get broken, regardless of where those rules apply.

The need for rules are not only for the good of society at large but also for organisations as well. Businesses need to operate according to a laid-down set of rules. When these rules are important enough, a need even arises for the setting up of regulatory bodies to enforce the rules. With that in mind, it makes sense for businesses to also establish rules when it comes to how they deal with customers.

It is expected of customers to follow those rules to ensure that there is a cordial atmosphere for the business to be able to serve those customers. In an ideal world, all rules would be followed to the letter. Unfortunately, this one is a far from ideal world. Some customers do break rules. Some customers do misbehave. Some customers will take an organisation for granted.

When laid-down rules, regulation and policies are being flouted and broken by customers, someone must ensure that the rules are enforced. It is easy to get security persons to handle rules with security implications. For instance, a customer that is caught stealing can easily be handled by the organisation’s security staff. However, a customer jumping the queue would not be subjected to any such treatment. It would be akin to killing a fly with a sledgehammer.

The job of dealing with customers who break the rules of the organisation mostly falls to those

who interact with customers on a regular basis—front line employees. It would have been ideal if someone else did that “dirty job”. Maybe the organisation could bring in security personnel to ensure that customers follow the rules. But unfortunately, in many cases, it does not make business sense to employee people separately to be enforcing rules at the front line of the organisation. Therefore, the onus falls on the front line employee to do that job.

Research shows that this situation came to a head during the heady days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the time when customers had to follow a number of rules that were of such importance that flouting them was literally a matter of life and death. Nose masks had to be worn before entering the premises of the organisation. The masks even had to be of a certain quality. Not only were the nose masks to be on at all times, they were also to be worn appropriately. They had to fully cover the nose and the mouth. Then there were rules concerning social distancing. Customers had to sit or stand a certain minimum distance apart from each other. All these rules had to be obeyed to the letter.

Someone had to police the situation to ensure that it was done and done right. In the middle of all this was the poor customer service employee. It became part of the front line employee’s job description to become a rules enforcer. Getting front line employees to double as rules enforcers might make perfect sense to management of many organisations. Unfortunately, there is proof that becoming rules enforcers also affects the well-being and, by extension, the performance of these rules enforcers.

Simply put, rules enforcing is not fun for the customer service professional.  For a front line employee whose primary job is to make customers feel welcomed, it is not easy having to become a rule enforcer. For many front line employees, it becomes a real struggle to switch between the smiling, welcoming warm outward appearance expected of the role and the stern, assertive look needed if rule enforcement is to be taken seriously. The switch from one emotional disposition to the other puts a strain on the individual.

A study published in the November 2023 edition of the Journal of Service Theory and Practice brought out clearly the concerns of front line employees on the effect of rules enforcement. The study was titled “FLEs’ concerns with misbehaving customers in the time of COVID and beyond.” As a matter of fact, the study found that the requirement for front line employees to play the rules enforcers role led to an increase in the burnout of these customer-handling employees.

Analysing a survey of 840 frontline retail, restaurant, service and caregiving employees, the researchers concluded that three key factors affected front line employees in this regard. The first of these factors is how often front line employees believe customers violate the rules customers are expected to obey. It really affects customer-handling employees the more they see customers break simple rules. It is one thing for a customer or a handful of customers to break a rule here and there. That can be tolerated. However, when there is a high frequency of violations, it affects the customer-facing employee.

The second factor is the front line employee’s concern with the misbehaving customer. Dealing with a rude customer or one who is breaking rules set by the company is not an easy task. Some customers can be plain hostile and belligerent. There are customers who will not honour company policies and rules, sometimes engaging in aggressive and abusive acts when confronted. It takes a lot for the average customer-handling employee to maintain her cool while dealing with such a customer. The emotional stress that it comes with can be telling on the employee.

The last factor is the employee’s concerns with enforcing rules with unruly customers. As discussed in the previous paragraph, to face a misbehaving customer while maintaining some sense of calm requires a lot. However, it would take a lot more to enforce the rules the customer is breaking. To get the customer to back down—or to get the one to follow the laid-down procedures—requires not just a sense of calm but also some measure of assertiveness. It might require the same smiling face but this time, there must also be some sternness in the look. Doing these require much more than many of those at the front line bargained for and this is what eventually leads to burnout.

The researchers further asserted that when customer-handling employees experience these burnout due to the misdeeds of customers, the commitment of the employee to the organisation decreases. Employees in these situations also tend to begin considering quitting from the employ of the organisation. Given the opportunity, they will resign with immediate effect.

The implications to the performance of an employee with that mindset will not be too difficult to fathom. Such an employee will be a disaster waiting to happen. Feeling burnt out, with no commitment to the company and with plans of leaving the company, how would such an employee give customers the best of service? These are the employees whose presence at the front line becomes more of a problem to the organisation than a solution.

The challenge with adding rules enforcement to the responsibilities of customer service employees was also brought to the fore in another interesting study that came out right after the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of this particular study were published in the November 2021 edition of the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services. The publication was captioned “I don’t want to be a rule enforcer during the COVID-19 pandemic: Frontline employees’ plight”.

Just as expected it was found in this study that the incidence of several customer misbehaviours produced significant occupational stress for customer service employees. The study further found that the attempt to get customers to do what was right resulted in negative customer reactions. Many customers simply refused to cooperate with front line employees. Ultimately, having to enforce rules made these front line employees quite unpopular with customers.

COVID-19 might be behind us but there are still rules that customers have to adhere to. The mixture of fear, frustration and general sense of despondency that characterised that deadly period in modern human history might have receded grudgingly into the past. However, the need for rule enforcement is ever present with us. If the past has taught us anything, it would be the fact that customers would keep on breaking rules. When they do, the onus will still fall on those who serve them to help bring them back in line.

From the ongoing discussion, it is clear that businesses cannot take it for granted that all is well with those enforcing the rules. They might be doing a good job enforcing the rules but it is taking its toll on them. It is therefore imperative that structures are put in place to help those at the front better manage this not-so-pleasant aspect of the front line job schedule.

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