Why Customer Service Employees Should be Able to Defend themselves at the Workplace


Imagine being at work and someone is rude or threatens you, but when you retaliate, you are the one who gets blamed and punished. In such cases, an important question remains whether the person was right to stand for the self. While customer service employees play a critical role as a link between a company and its customers, they face a unique challenge. They are always the customer’s target who comes or calls the workplace in a bad mood. Unfortunately, the mantra, “the customer is always right,” makes it hard for customer service employees to defend themselves. Besides, they are also harassed and bullied by their colleagues and other people who visit their organizations. Some workers have been punished, even fired, for trying to protect themselves from bullies. This causes many to remain silent and bear the burden of the problem. As individuals prepare to become employees, they should understand the challenges ahead, their impact, and practical solutions. While many states and organizations should create means to protect their workers from workplace violence and bullying, even perpetrated by customers, there is a need for more zero-tolerance policies against abusive clients.

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The Problem

Being bullied at the workplace is a challenge that all current and future employees should understand. Customer service employees are the most affected by the problem perpetrated by customers, fellow employees, and even the management. Besides, in pursuing profitability through customer satisfaction, the management can ignore the plight of the employees who are the target of bullying by others, including customers. The management’s illusion of “customer sovereignty” has created a hostile working environment for customer service employees (Grandey et al., 2004). The power imbalance is entrenched in the labor process, leaving employees vulnerable to customers without the room to defend themselves (Lopez, 2010). As a result, aggression and abuse directed towards employees, mainly perpetrated by customers, is common. The challenges also make the customer service environment a hard place to work. The dilemma between making the customer happy and remaining silent is why the problem has worsened, and affected employees remain silent.

The problem is more common than many people think or believe. Demanding customers have attacked many employees. An excellent example happened recently in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The case occurred in Grover Beach when a man used a racial slur against a Grover Beach Wells Fargo branch’s manager and later attacked an employee of the bank as she left work for home (Friedman, 2021). When the man arrived at the bank, he entered without a mask, which was against the bank’s policy. The manager asked him to wear his mask to be served in the lobby. He responded to the kind request aggressively and even became hostile when offered an extra mask kept in the bank for customers. The case is one of the many that involve customers who act aggressively and even physically abuse employees. The prevalence of workplace violence against employees necessitates a means to protect or defend themselves. While the current policies are not directly related to the workplace and the relationship between employees and customers, they try to protect those who defend themselves.  

Causes of the Problem

For an effective solution to be implemented, it is necessary to establish the problem’s causes that need to be addressed. One of the causes is that some companies do not correct the behaviors when they first happen. As a result, people continue to behave aggressively toward others without ramifications. Notably, some companies almost encourage the behavior when they reprimand the victim instead of the perpetrator. For example, some employees or supervisors close to the top management take advantage of their positions to attack others. When the cases reach management, the victim is reprimanded, suspended, or even fired from the company. Another related factor is the lack of an effective policy in workplaces to protect employees from internal and external sources of aggression (Hershcovis & Reich, 2013). Without any means, that spells out unacceptable behaviors and punishes perpetrators leaving room for the negative behavior to continue. 

Another cause of the problem is the profit drive. Companies are so focused on profits that they forget the needs of other stakeholders. They create a culture in which the customer is given priority over everyone else. They even forget that customers are also humans and can perpetrate aggression and bullying. Based on those premises, customers tend to misuse the companies’ power to mistreat employees, especially those they have direct contact with. Some come to the company frustrated by other unrelated issues and harass employees. Unfortunately, many firms forget to protect their employees from such negative experiences because they only focus on profit-making (Lopez, 2010). They also fail to empower their employees to protect themselves from such adverse incidents. In fact, some are even punished for standing up for themselves against customers for fear that the company will lose revenue. To protect their jobs, some even remain silent until it is too late. In such an environment, organizations have failed to meet the needs of their employees while protecting customers, leaving them at the mercy of aggressive individuals. Considering the seriousness of the problem, these are some areas that should be corrected.

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Current Solutions

There are reasonable grounds to act in self-defense to the extent that the victim of an attack is attacked without any fault. WV’s public policy of acting in self-defense is the regulation that solves the current problem, allowing innocent people to defend themselves when they are attacked and feel at risk of serious harm. The victim should have reasons to believe the threat is real and can end their lives or cause serious bodily harm. Thus, when such a person avoids danger by attacking or harming the attacker, the law should not condemn such a person. The point is that as long as the person is sure that they can save themselves from the assailant, then acting in self-defense should be allowed (Daines, 2010). The law could play an essential role in protecting employees who are attacked and have grounds to believe they are in danger. Notably, it could help discourage the assailant or vindicate a person if a lawsuit is made against them for attacking or even killing another person.

The current law could be useful in helping customer service employees to defend themselves from an attacker. However, its effectiveness is primarily limited by many factors. Firstly, the victim is not always aware of the other person’s intention. Most attacks, especially those involving employees, are impromptu and do not allow victims to defend themselves. Another limitation of the law is that most people cannot physically defend themselves. For example, a female employee working in a restaurant might not have the skills for self-defense when threatened. Thus, the law cannot prevent aggression and bullying in such settings. Some people are also not physically aggressive and cannot fight for themselves (Daines, 2010). Lastly, the law does not protect against other types of aggression, such as verbal. Some perpetrators abuse the victim, causing severe psychological harm. The law does not apply in such cases that do not involve physical aggression. Thus, the law leaves employees without protection in the workplace when they experience aggression. 

Another challenge with the current policy is the burden of proof. It is challenging for the defendant to prove that they were attacked first or they perceived danger when they acted in self-defense. One of the policy elements is that the defendant proves that the conditions of the attacker occurred with a “reasonable” base to believe in the imminent risk of death or bodily harm (Daines, 2010). While the condition is necessary, it is not always easy to prove that the conditions were met. For example, when a customer service employee is working with a customer, and a physical fight begins without CCTV or witnesses, it is challenging to prove that the customer is the perpetrator. A related condition that makes the policy problematic in preventing workplace attacks is the need to prove that the action taken by the said victim is “proportionate” to the danger (“State v. W.J.B., 166 W. Va. at 608, 276 S.E.2d at 554”). For example, suppose a customer service employee is verbally attacked by a customer, drawing a knife to retaliate and killing the perpetrator. In that case, this is not a reasonable response to the threat. The challenge makes the policy limited in helping customer service employees defend themselves against perpetrators. 

Alternative Solutions

One of the possible solutions to end workplace violence and bullying is providing employees with education and training regarding the problem and the steps to take if bullying occurs. Training them on recognizing bullying in the workplace will help them take the right action before they are negatively affected by the problem (Hershcovis & Reich, 2013). The training should also include information regarding where to report any cases of aggression or violence, such as to the management. For example, customer service employees could be trained to report cases of violence perpetrated by customers to their immediate supervisors. Such a step will protect them and empower them to address the problem. However, the solution might not be effective amid the culture that gives customers power over employees and the company. Reporting will remain ineffective as long as the company is afraid of losing customers and related economic benefits. Besides, employees might still be victimized for reporting customers. 

Another potential solution to the problem is to have organizational leaders and managers work with the government to revise or make new policies to address workplace bullying. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government and other stakeholders should be proactive in implementing new policies to protect workers because of the heightened level of stress that makes them worried and potentially aggressive. The high level of depression increases the risk of violence targeted toward different groups, including customer service employees. Thus, the stakeholders can collaborate and create new legislation to address workplace bullying and aggression to address the problem. The change can be in the form of a law that prosecutes perpetrators of violence (McCright et al., 2019). While the change at the policy level appears effective in solving the problem, it is limited at the implementation level. Since some offices condone workplace violence due to a lack of a mechanism to protect employees at the corporate level, new legislation will still not work. Besides, it is essential to note that the legislation needs an effective implementation environment at the organizational level. 

Developing and implementing a clear anti-bullying policy is another approach that would deal with workplace bullying and violence. A policy should spell out workplace bullying and violence and how to address it at the organizational level. All employees, at all levels, should be aware of the policy and support its implementation to end the vice. Besides, the policy should also be adopted and used to address all reports of violence, whether perpetrated by leaders, peers, or customers. The policy will effectively deal with the problem and help employees stand up for themselves whenever they are bullied or mistreated (Gustin, 2020). Besides, it will indicate the necessary steps to take whenever bullying or violence is reported to the management. However, the policy will not be effective in the current culture that excuses some forms of violence, mainly committed by customers. The policy will be in place but might not be used to deal with the problem and make the workplace safe for all employees. Thus, a complete change must be implemented to tackle the problem differently.  

Proposed Solution

An effective policy should involve all the different approaches to create a culture change and empower employees to defend themselves from bullies, including customers. The beginning step is for all stakeholders to create comprehensive change. The solution involves collaborative efforts between organizational leadership and the government to create an effective policy to address the problem and help employees fight for their rights. Effective legislation will successfully prosecute perpetrators and allow victims to get justice. According to Fleming (2019), The policy should also be communicated for everyone knows its existence and its effectiveness. Perpetrators will know that their acts of aggression or violence will lead to prosecution, deterring them from committing such acts. As a result, even customers will understand that it is not right to bully customer service employees, and if they do, there will be consequences. However, the policy alone may not be the solution since a culture change is necessary. 

Notably, to achieve the change of culture, the management should be willing to apply the policy in their organizations. They should be prepared to bring to book any perpetrator of the violence, even if it is their customers. The beginning step should be the education and training of all employees to understand the problem and the policy implemented to address it. Training should also include the avenues they have to defend themselves and fight for their rights (Gustin, 2020). For example, they should know whether to report to the management first or go directly to the legal system whenever they experience bullying. They should also feel safe enough to inform the leadership in case of bullying without the fear of being punished for reporting (Holbrook et al., 2018). When the message is clear to employees and other stakeholders, including customers, the problem will be reduced, and the workplace will be safer for all employees. Empowering employees to defend themselves is the most crucial element of the proposed policy change. In this case, workers will understand when their rights are violated and take immediate action to protect them from the worse adverse effects of the violence.

The solution would be effective since it would create a culture that does not condone workplace bullying. It will involve various stakeholders in implementing the changes in the mindset of internal and external stakeholders, including customers. It emerges that allowing a culture that excuses bad behavior has been the leading cause of workplace bullying. Customers have been given the power to bully employees and get away with it to fear that the firm will lose revenue. Thus, the management will use the new policy to eliminate the prevailing culture and mindset and create new ones (Fleming, 2019). For example, if an employee is bullied by a customer and reports to the management, an action against the perpetrator will change a message to everyone that the company no longer condones the adverse conduct. In the process, even customers will change and improve how they relate with employees, especially the customer service team. Approaching the problem from multiple perspectives will effectively create a working solution.

However, stakeholders should recognize potential objectives and address them successfully to guide practice. A primary source of objection is consumer rights bodies, which might object to transferring power from consumers to employees. They might be afraid that employees might use their power to violate the rights of consumers. For example, they might fear that the new legislation and policy changes will gag consumers and prevent them from fighting to be heard, such as in the quality of products and services. However, the policymakers and implementers will include the consumer rights organizations in creating and implementing the policy to eradicate their concerns. They should be trained to educate consumers about the need for the new policy to protect employees. The knowledge will play an essential role in eradicating the concerns and improving support for the proposed solution. They will also understand that the policy is beneficial to all stakeholders. Besides, it will be transparent, and all grievances will be addressed fairly to avoid conflicts. 


Many employees, especially in the customer service department, are victims of bullying and violence. Unfortunately, some perpetrators are the people they should serve daily, leaving them with mental and emotional trauma. Most of the cases are unaddressed, leaving victims without hope of getting justice. Furthermore, some are punished for defending themselves through suspension or even job termination. The issue is that many companies create a culture that condones negative behaviors. Thus, an effective solution should target the enabling environment through policy changes, enactment, and education to internal and external stakeholders. The solution involving the input of all stakeholders affected by the problem is the most suited to addressing the problem. They will also be educated and empowered to learn their rights and defend them when threatened. Overall, employees will also have a voice to speak out when threatened and protect themselves from different avenues, including the employer and law. 



Daines, D. C. (2010). State v. Harden: Muddying the Waters of Self-Defense Law in West Virgina. W. Va. L. Rev.113, 971.

Fleming, A. J. (2019). Strategies for Implementing Workplace Violence Prevention Policies in Small Businesses (Doctoral dissertation, Walden University).

Friedman, J (2021). Man assaults bank manager in Grover Beach over mask policy. Retrieved from https://dashboard.goldenwritingcenter.com/order/16739

Grandey, A. A., Dickter, D. N., & Sin, H. P. (2004). The customer is not always right: Customer aggression and emotion regulation of service employees. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior25(3), 397-418.

Henderson, S. N., & Van Hasselt, V. B. (2017). Workplace violence. In Handbook of Behavioral Criminology (pp. 537-554). Springer, Cham.

Hershcovis, M. S., & Reich, T. C. (2013). Integrating workplace aggression research: Relational, contextual, and method considerations. Journal of Organizational Behavior34(S1), S26-S42.

Holbrook, C. M., Bixler, D. E., Rugala, E. A., & Casteel, C. (2018). The Foundation: Creation of a Workplace Violence Prevention Policy. In Workplace Violence (pp. 7-9). Routledge.

Lopez, S. H. (2010). Workers, managers, and customers: Triangles of power in work communities. Work and Occupations37(3), 251-271.

McCright, M., Blair, M., Applegate, B., Griggs, P., Backus, M., & Pabico, C. (2019). Addressing workplace violence with the Pathway to Excellence® framework. Nursing management50(8), 10-13.

Gustin, J. F. (2020). Workplace violence and the facility manager. CRC Press.

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