Notes on Employee Discontent and Sabotage: Implications for Customer Experience Management


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Linkages Between Employee Attitudes and Actions and Customer Behavior

There is an amply proven, powerful relationship between employee commitment to the company, the brand value proposition, and the customer and their employers’ actual business (financial) and marketplace outcomes. Yet, when considering, and measuring, the pivotal elements of staff performance and productivity, most companies are focused principally on employee attitudes around satisfaction, company loyalty, alignment with goals and objectives (such as corporate citizenship), and what they consider to be levels of engagement. These are important, to be sure; but, historically, they only superficially and weakly correlate what employees think and do to actual customer behavior.

To more directly correlate employee behavior with customer behavior, we have developed a highly effective suite of research techniques for understanding stakeholder perspectives and decision-making dynamics. For example, customers who actively (frequent informal communication, level of favorability, companies in consideration set, etc.) express their commitment to a supplier can, depending on experiences and perceptions, range from strongly positive (advocates) or negative (saboteurs). Employees, likewise, can significantly impact customer loyalty behavior toward their employer through a range of attitudes and actions on behalf of the brand, company and customer. These attitudes and actions, similar to customers, range from highly positive to highly negative.

Our research framework for identifying this is employee ambassadorship. Its intent is to define the most active level of employee commitment to the company’s product and service value promise, to the company itself, and to optimizing the customer experience. It is linked to, but distinctive from, the productivity and empowerment elements of employee satisfaction, engagement, and alignment research because, with ambassadorship, emphasis is building customer bonds, and creating positive transactional and long-term customer experience through employee interaction.

We most typically concentrate on what drives active, positive, vocal commitment, i.e. ambassadorship; however, it is at least equally important to identify where employee indifference and negativism, potentially leading to sabotage attitudes and actions, exist, why they exist, and how they can be mitigated or eliminated. If employee ambassadorship is the North Pole, then sabotage is the South Pole; and, in this article, we identify what starts an employee on the journey to the South Pole.

The Roots of Employee Negativism

To better understand this, we conducted a study through a major polling service among close to 1,200 full-employees, 18 and over. One of our first objectives with these questions was to identify employees’ overall commitment level, loyalty, and impression about the company and its ability to earn customers’ trust and loyalty. This was accomplished through a series of four simple agree-disagree statements. On two of the questions, commitment to the organization’s success and ability to earn customer trust and loyalty, there was fairly high positivism. The two statements which addressed overall impression and loyalty, however, showed significantly greater negativity:

– I am very committed to the success of my employer organization: 78% Yes, 12% No, 10% Not sure

– We consistently earn our customers’ trust and loyalty: 76% Yes, 12% No, 12% Not Sure

– I feel very loyal to the organization I currently work for: 69% Yes, 21% No, 10% Not Sure

– I have a very positive impression about the organization I work for: 68% Yes, 22% No, 10% Not Sure

There were definite age-related differences on all of these elements, with younger (18-24 year old) respondents giving lower percentages of ‘Yes’ scores on all measures. For example, on ‘I am very committed to the success of my employer organization’ – 63% ‘Yes’ by 18-24 year-olds compared to 83% of those 50-64 and 86% by 65+ respondents. Also, there was higher positivism among African-Americans and Republicans. There also tended to be some polarizing on these statements based on income: On all measures, those with $34,900 or less income gave lower scores. Finally, on a geographic basis, respondents in the South more frequently gave ‘Yes’ scores on all statements; and Female respondents were more loyal to their organizations, had more positive impressions about their organizations, and more frequently said ‘Yes’ to earning customers’ trust and loyalty (81% vs. 72%).

Just as with consumer opinions and decision-making dynamics, informal communication from employees has a great deal to do with impressions of an organization, both inside by other employees and outside by customers, vendors and the general public. We asked if employees tell others how bad their company is as a place to work. A total of 43% said they do (7% frequently, and 36% sometimes).

Here again, there were differences by age, with greater frequency of saying negative things about their employer among Echo Boomers (49%), significantly lower percentages among Matures, 62+ (25%). Also, negativism was higher among males than females and lower among African-Americans, and it was also higher among those with lowest income (48%), and lower among highest income respondents (37%). Finally, negativism was very high among respondents with disabilities (52%) compared to those with no disabilities (40%).

The Potential Impacts of Negativism

In this research, we also wanted to understand the potential effects, inside and outside of the organization, of negatives expressed by employees. We asked respondents if they ever tell others about how bad the products and/or services of their employer are; and over one-third said they do, either frequently (3%) or sometimes (32%).

Demographically, this is higher in the East, and among African-American respondents (41%); but, consistent with feelings about their employer, lower among respondents 50 to 64 (28%) and those over 65 (25%), but higher among 18 to 24 year olds (42%). Males are also more negative about their company’s products and services than are females (39% vs. 30%). Those who identified their sexual orientation as GLBT also were significantly more negative (60%). There was marked impact of polarity by income level: 44% of respondents with $34,900, or less, compared to 31% with $75,000+. Finally, there was greater tendency to tell consumers negative things (compared to businesses) and to speak negatively about products compared to services.

To better identify what was behind neutral to negative perceptions of their employer’s products and services, we asked respondents why they believed their company does not earn customers’ trust and loyalty. The array of key reasons included poor customer interaction, and unfair treatment of both customers and employees:

– Profit is only motivation for company (11%) – Told more to consumers (than to businesses)

– Poor customer service (11%) – Told more to consumers (than to businesses)

– Lie to customers (10%) – Almost entirely by ‘Baby Boomers, also more frequently from those with H.S. or less education; told more about products than services

– Inconsistent policies/treat different customers differently (9%) – Strongly from Baby Boomers, also more frequently from those with H.S. or less education; told more about products than services

– Do not treat employees fairly (9%) – Strongly from Baby Boomers, also more frequently from those with H.S. or less education; told more about products than services

Leveraging Employee Positivism

Polar employee positivism, the essence of ambassadorship, is absolutely critical for companies striving to be optimally customer centric. Even though customer experience management processes may be tightly managed, executing and sustaining them is virtually impossible without the enthusiastic, and real, support of employees. These experiences, and resulting levels of customer loyalty behavior, are greatly influenced by employee interactions. For example, many studies have determined that customers who complain to an organization and have their complaints satisfactorily resolved, tell an average of 5 other people about the good treatment they received, and they tell at least 20 people if they receive poor treatment. Many of these studies were conducted pre-Internet, so the potential for negative informal communication (blogs, forums, chat rooms, online communities, rating sites, etc.) is much stronger in today’s viral and mobile world.

Service studies have also shown that, of the customers who register a complaint, between 54% and 70% will do business with the organization again if their complaints are resolved. This figure goes up to 95% if the customers feel the complaints are resolved professionally, quickly and proactively, depending upon both systems and positive employee attitudes and actions.

So, it is both culturally desirable and financially rewarding for organizations to foster employee positivism. Compared to negative word-of-mouth about their employer as a place to work, our respondents tended to express positives more frequently, which is a very good outcome (for employers and customers) to this research. Overall, 34% of the respondents said they frequently tell others how good their company is, and 48% sometimes communicated positive messages. Within this positivism however, it should be noted that the lowest frequent personal positive communication by 18-24 year olds (24%), and it was highest among those 65+ (43%), consistent, but in reverse, with age-related expressions of negativism.

Finally, we asked respondents if they tell others how good the products or services of the company they work for are. Encouragingly, a total of 88% said they do (38% frequently and 50% sometimes). Employers should be gratified by the marked proclivity of employees to be positive and vocal about their employer’s products and/or services, compared to the likelihood of being negative and vocal. Nevertheless, the impact on customer behavior of both positive and negative expression needs to be understood and consistently monitored.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


  1. I appreciate your customer-centric orientation, and your focus on results through employees and customers. In the past 20+ years our clients, ranging from small/medium sized privately held companies to large publicly traded companies like Southwest Airlines, Capital One and BHP Billiton, have operationalized this in two ways:
    1) Using a customer interview script which is a modified version of Fred Reichheld’s “Ultimate Question”, they get great customer intelligence and consistently see increases in repeat and referral revenue. More information can be found at
    If you or your readers want a copy of the script, just send a request to [email protected]
    2) Engage the hearts and minds of their employees by making the economics of their business transparent, enabling their employees to see, understand and participate in the economics of the business. More details about this can be found at:
    Given our common interests, let me know if you would be interested in collaborating. I can be reached at [email protected]. Best wishes, Bill


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