'It's not a big deal': customer misbehaviour and social washing in hospitality

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Purpose: This study aims to examine customer misbehaviour in the hospitality sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. Design/methodology/approach: The study draws on a cross-sectional survey of employees in the Scottish hospitality sector highlighting customer misbehaviour as a key concern during the pandemic. Prevalent types of abuse and harassment experienced are outlined along with employee and management responses to incidents of misbehaviour. Findings: Verbal abuse and sexual harassment from customers are the most prevalent types of misbehaviour either experienced or witnessed by respondents. Customer misbehaviour is commonly thought of as “part of the job” and therefore “not a big deal”. Managers, largely, expect workers to tolerate abusive behaviours from customers and do not take reports of incidents seriously. Practical implications: Transformational managers need to foster workplace well-being with a focus on physical and psychological safety. Recognition of the issue and greater support for victims are furthermore required at an industry level and on the policy front. Social implications: The research points to an uncomfortable reality in the service economy that needs to be confronted by society. It has, therefore, important implications for key stakeholders in ensuring fair, dignified and safe hospitality workplaces. Originality/value: Customer misbehaviour is reportedly worsening in times of COVID-19 as demonstrated by this study. Despite rhetoric that abuse and harassment are not tolerated, dismissive attitudes from managers – who expect workers to tolerate abusive behaviour – and employee silence about incidents lead the authors to argue that the failure to acknowledge and address this issue constitutes a form of “social washing” in hospitality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4123-4141
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management
Issue number11
Early online date6 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - 21 Oct 2022


  • hospitality
  • service work
  • workplace violence
  • customer misbehaviour
  • sexual harassment
  • workplace dignity
  • employee wellbeing
  • decent work
  • transformational leadership


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