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No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service...And No More Viral Videos?

Attention, service employees: As you know, customers are angry. Really angry. All the time now. On top of this, it feels like management isn't always managing the situation very well. It's time to take a look at feeling stuck in the middle. Let's go to the videotape!

It's not hard to find video after video of customers behaving badly, whether it's at Wendy's or Dunkin Donuts or pretty much every retail establishment in between. By the way, less than six months until Black Friday roll around again, everyone!

I wrote a workplace column back in 2001 on the topic of employees feeling "stuck" in the middle between angry customers and nebulous management, long before viral videos became an everyday fact of life. In the column, I explored the detrimental effects of "emotional labor," e.g., the game face employees must wear to manage their emotions on the job, particularly when confronted by very angry customers. Yes, the term "emotional labor" actually exists, thanks to researchers.

It used to be that a service employee would feel embarrassed and berated by a customer locally instead of globally. Service employees are just standing there like they have always stood there, but now they could find themselves suddenly "starring" in a popular viral video at any given moment, whether they want to or not. Just stand there, and look dutiful!

What added effect, however, is our viral video culture having on service employees' attitudes, stress levels, and morale? What responsibility, if any, does management have toward service employees when modern "emotional labor" might include an unexpected video cameo?

It's a very 21st Century kind of question, isn't it? Perhaps store signs will eventually read No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service, And Absolutely No Videotaping Our Employees! Eh, the last part is never going to happen, is it? Smartphone use has become far too ubiquitous.

Employers, however, might step up their game by, say, thinking about how they might step in more often to quell terrible customer tirades. Or something? It seems like some sort of policy is quickly becoming the order of the day, because many of our front line employees simply aren't ready or willing, or quite possibly trained, to handle these viral video close ups. Can I get a little help around here? This red-faced customer is yelling at me and throwing things while another customer just stands around filming it! What should I do? Heeeeeeelp meeeeeee!

At the very least, service managers need to think through this very 21st Century kind of problem before it starts to have a negative impact on the company's brand. Instead of thinking about a company's latest, greatest teevee commercial, today's customers might just have a viral video rant pop into their heads that was filmed at a franchise location in Vermont. Did you see that [insert name of company] customer rant on YouTube? It's awesome! What would Don Draper do in 2013? Well, we know that he would try to change the conversation, but it just might be too late, given how fast things move today. I feel for you, management. This is a tough one.

Dunkin Donuts says that it will honor the employee who recently endured a customer's racist tirade. That's very nice, but it doesn't solve the larger problem of what companies can do today to train service employees on the front lines of navigating our viral video culture. Better hurry, employers. Your 15 minutes are almost up.

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