A new survey reveals how food service staffers really deal with unpleasant customers.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated September 05, 2014
Restaurant plate
Credit: svariophoto/Getty Images

Given that the average wage of non-managerial employees is less than $9 an hour, most restaurant industry employees depend on tips—and they usually serve food and field complaints with a smile. But a particularly nasty or aggressive diner might prompt subtle backlash, a coping mechanism for what researchers have termed “customer stressors.”

Researchers from Baylor University and the University of Houston surveyed 438 food service employees—from managers to hostesses to servers—to determine if they ever exhibited so-called counterproductive work behavior (CWB), or intentional actions that harm an organization and its stakeholders. The study, published in the most recent issue of the journal Human Performance, zeroed in on behaviors targeted at customers, including the widely-feared “spitting in the plate” method of retaliation. Most of the employees—about 80 percent—admitted to relatively harmless activities, like making fun of difficult customers or lying to them. If you notice service is slower than usual, it might be a purposeful ploy, according to 65 percent of survey respondents.

Although the bulk of actions were almost invisible to the diner’s eye, some employees confessed to more obvious, and sometimes slightly harmful, behaviors. Almost half admitted to arguing, while 14 percent copped to insulting an unpleasant customer. When it came to poor tippers, 11 percent of employees said they’d forged a higher gratuity, and 19 percent had confronted a customer.

"Food service employees generally do their best to provide a positive experience for customers," study co-author Dr. Lisa Penney said in a statement. "However, they are human too, and the strain of dealing with extremely rude, demanding or difficult customers can manifest in ways that do not benefit customers."

Fortunately, only six percent of respondents reported that, yes, they had contaminated food. But the bottom line: If you and your server had a spat, it’s not a complete overreaction to worry about spit.