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Rejection and dehumanization when store employees break social norms during corona

Employees who violate the social norms during the corona pandemic are seen as less competent and warm – and even less human, a new study from the Stockholm School of Economics shows. Anger, disgust and rejection as a response, however, makes it less likely that norm-violators change their behavior.

During the corona pandemic, health authorities and governments across the world have issued recommendations to the public on how to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Recommendations include staying at home when you have cold or flu symptoms, maintaining social distancing, washing your hands or using antibacterial gel, and covering your mouth when you cough.

The recommendations are followed by most people – at least to some extent – and have quickly become social norms, dictating what is seen as appropriate behavior. But what happens when an employee in a store violates these norms? Professor Magnus Söderlund at SSE’s Center for Retailing and his colleagues have studied our reactions to norm-violating behavior. In their study, customers were randomly exposed to employees who either followed or violated the norms. In the case of the latter, norm-violating behavior included the employee coughing, not wearing sanitary gloves, or touching the customer.

”Humans are interdependent and social norms are there to facilitate cooperation. We often react negatively and emotionally to those who break the rules, even if we’re not ourselves directly affected by it. Given the serious nature of this virus and the problems it’s causing, norm-violating behavior in a service setting is expected to have a negative impact on customer satisfaction,” Söderlund says.

More dehumanization

The study did confirm the hypothesis: Customers faced with norm-violating behavior from an employee perceived the latter as less warm and competent. To some extent this can be ascribed to the so-called halo effect, meaning we allow one negative characteristic to inform our opinion of a person as a whole. The low levels of perceived warmth and competence shown in the study can be compared to studies showing how people perceive welfare recipients, the poor and homeless people.

”Norm-violating behavior also increased the feeling of disgust among customers. Usually disgust leads to avoidance and rejection. Norm-violators were also ranked lower on perceived humanness than those who followed the norms,” says Magnus Söderlund.

Earlier studies show that if a person is perceived as less human, reactions like aggression, anger, contempt and rejection come more natural to us. In a one-one encounter, the customer is often in a unique position to be able to affect employee behavior, but an aggressive approach would rather decrease the chances of the employee correcting their norm-violating behavior. It is also more likely that the employee would respond to the customer in kind, according to the researchers.  

Reduced profits

”For the store, a negative customer experience can lead to reduced income. In the same way that the halo effect affects our perception of a person, a negative experience can shape the way that we view a whole business or organization,” Söderlund says.

The study was conducted in the United Kingdom in April 2020, when around 13,000 had died due to COVID-19, the country was under lock-down and prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized.

The study

The study was published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services:

Employee norm-violations in the service encounter during the corona pandemic and their impact on customer satisfaction