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Oklahoma State University

Deciphering incivility

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

For more than three decades OSU's Dr. Hailin Qu has conducted research into service quality and customer behavior in the hospitality industry.

Qu’s studies on customer service encompass multiple levels 

When the Oklahoma State University School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) became part of the Spears School of Business in July 2019 the school’s world-class researchers, who study the business complexities of restaurant, hotel and tourism organizations, made the move, too.

Chief among them was Dr. Hailin Qu, Regents Professor, William E. Dais Distinguished Chair and director of HTM’s Center for Hospitality and Tourism Research. In three decades as a scholar focusing on service quality and customer behavior, Qu’s work has been cited more than 8,800 times while his impact on the field’s future includes advising more than 30 doctoral and post-doctoral scholars.

Qu and his doctoral students have written several journal articles on the impact of customer and employee incivility on the hospitality industry. Those articles include recent publications that urge multilevel thinking toward managerial problems in hospitality. Qu said a multilevel perspective provides a more accurate understanding of interactions.

“Multilevel research is valuable and has been increasingly used by scholars,” Qu said. “In the past, we only studied customer satisfaction and customer attitude and behavior at a single layer of analysis. But actually, service quality involves interactions between employees and customers, between customers and the organization, between employees and co-workers and between employees and the organization, particularly supervisors and managers.

“A simultaneous adoption of customer and employee orientation alone may still not be able to assist an organization in achieving its business success goals.”

In 2018 and 2019, Qu and his co-authors published research in two top-tier hospitality and tourism research journals that explored a multilevel and multisource approach to understanding customer incivility in restaurants and the tactics hospitality managers use to influence their employees, which directly impact employee incivility.

The articles, published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management and in Tourism Management, were co-authored by Qu’s former Ph.D. student Dr. Jing Liu. OSU assistant professor of human development and family science Dr. Isaac Washburn also co-authored the Hospitality Management article, and professor and Noble Foundation Chair of Marketing and International Business Dr. Tom Brown had valuable input for Liu’s dissertation. The researchers surveyed 873 restaurant employees matched with 2,619 customers in China.

The scholars wrote in Hospitality Management that research is lacking on the benefits of understanding customer incivility through studies using multilevel theories and that their investigation has added important insights. Viewing employee and customer incivility through a more accurate research approach will help manage interactions based on deepened knowledge of situational cues as well as how perpetrators psychologically react before they actually engage in uncivil behaviors, Qu said.

Waiting on tables.
Research has shown that 98 percent of hospitality workers surveyed report experiencing customer incivility.

Qu and his co-authors offered practical suggestions for managers who work with employees faced with customers’ incivility; after all, it’s better to prevent incivility by working on the controllable causes than to punish, ignore or tolerate incivility after it happens, said Qu. Management intervention should include appropriate employee training.

The research published by Qu’s team in Tourism Management investigated the impact hospitality managers have on customer incivility through their influence over employee behavior.

Interactions between customers and hospitality employees, and the management of customer expectations, are among the most heavily studied areas of industry research. In a 2018 study examining the impact of customer incivility on employee behavior, Qu and co-authors cited research that said 98% of hospitality workers surveyed reported experiencing customer incivility and half of those employees said incidents occur at least once a week.

In the study published in Tourism Management, which relied on the paired surveys of restaurant employees and customers, Qu and Liu examined the critical importance of employee job satisfaction on employee incivility toward customers. The authors wrote that a link exists between a manager’s influence tactics — from non-, soft- or hard-coercive tactics — and a worker’s sense of empowerment and job satisfaction. Higher levels of job satisfaction lessened employee incivility toward customers.

“The within-organization experiences can be carried over to influence the quality of service,” the authors wrote. “One essential goal of managerial leadership in the hospitality industry is to ensure the quality of customer service that generates the revenue growth of the company.”

Media Contact: Jeff Joiner | Communications Coordinator | 405.744.2700 |

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