Steve Slater to McNugget rage: Customer service or customer to blame?

JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater vented plenty of job frustration before sliding to fame. Now comes the case of McNugget rage in which a McDonald's customer attacks employees. Is workplace anxiety rising?

YouTube screengrab
McNugget rage: A security-camera video that became public this week, taken earlier this year, shows a drive-through customer punching employees and smashing the sliding window because she couldn't get Chicken McNuggets.

The customer isn't always right, after all.

That's a subtext of two workplace tales that have emerged in the news this week: JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater's dramatic slide to fame and the case of "McNugget rage" by a belligerent customer at a McDonald's drive-through window.

Whether or not Mr. Slater was justified in his behavior, he was instantly embraced by legions of Americans as a working class hero, symbolizing the trials of harried employees nationwide.

"That Steven Slater did what most of us dream about," one Californian emoted on Twitter.

In part, Americans are collectively anxious about a recession-bound economy: stagnant pay and uncertain prospects if you quit a job you don't like.

But there's more: For people who work in jobs that involve lots of customer service, a common peeve is that customers too often are overly demanding, abusive, or even downright violent.

The McNugget incident is a case in point. A security-camera video that became public this week, taken earlier this year, shows a drive-through customer punching employees and smashing the sliding window because she couldn't get Chicken McNuggets. The customer, Melodi Dushane, said she was drunk at the time, according to the Associated Press. She was sentenced to 60 days in jail and ordered to pay for the broken window.

And whether you call it heroism or not, the video shows the McDonald's employees showing some poise under pressure. They move without skipping a beat to serve the next drive-through customer.

The JetBlue incident has drawn more public attention, but appears to be a more complicated story. News reports Wednesday quoted passengers on the flight saying that Slater himself inflamed a dispute with a passenger trying to remove baggage and deplane, before he voiced his frustration over the public-address system and deployed the emergency chute. Other reports say the attendant had behaved oddly and unprofessionally throughout the short flight from Pittsburgh to New York.

The incident, however, has prompted other flight attendants to come forward with tales of rude behavior by customers.

"I've been glared at, verbally abused, threatened with lawsuits and recriminations from God simply because I asked a passenger to comply with the rules," flight attendant Elliot Hester wrote on the CNN website Thursday.

The moral of these stories appears to be that there's plenty of uncivil behavior to go around. Consumers can rightly complain about shoddy customer service. And workers often catch unwarranted flak from customers, regardless of the corporate mantra that "the customer is always right."

Earlier this year, a survey of 5,000 households by the Conference Board found that job satisfaction for US workers is at its lowest level in at least two decades. Only 45 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their jobs, down from 61 percent in 1987, the first year of the survey.

In this context, thanks to Slater, "hit the slide" has suddenly entered as a phrase meaning to "quit one's job, particularly in a dramatic or spectacular fashion."

A range of factors underlie weak job satisfaction, and the Conference Board survey didn't quantify whether difficult customer-relations are among them. But other evidence suggests that this may be one of the reasons.

In 2002, Public Agenda released a survey finding that 79 percent of Americans see a lack of respect and courtesy as a serious problem in the nation, and 73 percent said the problem is worse than it used to be.

Earlier this year, criminologists writing on USA Today's opinion page said cited the most extreme form of customer outrage -- instances of homicide at a workplace committed by angry clientele -- has roughly doubled since 1997.

"Though the problem of customers registering their complaints through violence is not of epidemic proportions, the number of killings committed by angry clientele now roughly equals those by disgruntled employees," wrote James Alan Fox and Jack Levin.

Since it generally takes two to tangle, they say a key part of the solution is for businesses to uphold high standards of customer service.

Slater's own behavior as a flight attendant Monday wasn't exactly civil. Yet many Americans relate to his avowed workplace frustration. In one online poll this week (not a scientific survey), 29 percent of the roughly 4,300 respondents clicked a box saying Slater's action was "Completely justified. Travelers are so impatient these days."

That's more than the combined percentage who clicked on either, "An overreaction. Did he really need to do that?" or "Stupid. It could have ended badly for him and the passengers." Some 43 percent opted for an ambiguous judgment: "Legendary. He stole a beer AND activated the slide."

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