When we hear incidents reported about customers screaming at workers while throwing their products, we can see how severe the issue of power abuse is in Korean society. Due to shocking video clips of workers being treated poorly being shared on social media, more people sympathize with those workers by calling for better treatment between workers and customers. With a new law that protects workers
being applied since last October, there is a new trend emerging called ‘Worker- Customer Balance’. This trend implies that customers should treat employees with kindness and respect while encouraging more customers to consider the employees’ well-being.
How Worker-Customer Balance Came to Be
“I worked part-time at School Food and when I was an inexperienced worker, I accidently dropped a dish and spilled its contents. Even though I said I was extremely sorry repeatedly, the customer screamed and threatened that he would file a complaint. The screaming eventually got out of hand that my manager had to come and try to calm the customer down,” said Kang A-hyun, a 21-year-old university student.
According to an article by the Digital Times, titled: ‘Change in the Social Culture, Worker-Customer Balance’, Culture Critic Ha Jae-geun mentioned how ‘kindness’ has been emphasized more since 2000 in Korean society. This meant that treating customers with excessive care was considered as an obvious thing to follow without any doubt.
“The relationship between workers and customers was not on a parallel scale, rather the workers treated customers as someone with more power. There are even sayings such as: ‘The customer is the king’ and ‘When the guest says the food is too salty, then it is’. Thinking back, the idea that the companies had to do everything to meet the customers’ needs was implemented too strongly in our minds,” states restaurant manager Lee Jung-hoon.
According to Ha’s article on the Digital Times, after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, being rich became the ultimate goal that many Koreans strived to achieve. This resulted in a society where people with a lot of money were given higher social hierarchal positions. This led to the perception by customers with money that they were better than those who provided the service, which ultimately led to customers mistreating the workers. Since a corporation did not want to lose any profit at a time when it was so important, they chose to silently deal with the mistreatment by bowing down to the customers.
Alongside power abuse, ‘No-show Customers’ is another factor calling for the need of ‘Worker-Customer Balance’. A hair salon manager in Seoul who wished to remain anonymous said, “Since a few years ago, our salon has implemented an online reservation system. However, it had some fall outs as it became much easier for the customers to cancel appointments at the last minute. So, I have to come to the shop keeping in mind that the morning time reservations would probably be cancelled.”
A ‘No-show Customer’ brings a sufficient amount of economic loss to businesses. From February 28, 2018, the government added new regulations in regard to such customers on the Consumer Dispute Resolution Standard. It was newly added that if a consumercancelled a reservation in less than an hour, the business does not have to return the reservation deposit to the customers.
Ways to Improve Worker-Customer Balance
Worker-Customer Balance is mostly needed for those who respond directly to the customer, otherwise known as an ‘Emotional Laborer’. Emotional Laborers have to hide their true emotions and show a bright attitude to customers. This includes service providers such as those who work at call centers, salespeople, and waiters. As these employees are required to maintain a positive face no matter what, they often experience frustration and depression due to the severe stress they receive from work.
In addition to her part-time job experience at School Food, Kang also talked about a time when she worked at a café. “I had to smile brightly when I was working there and receiving orders. Sometimes, my manager would keep an eye on me and I would get in trouble if my smile was not bright enough or if my voice tone was not as high pitched as it should be.”
In response to these problems, the Emotional Labor Protection Act (ELPA) was enacted, in hopes of preventing emotional laborers from suffering health problems due to customer harassment. With the ELPA, employers are responsible for taking preventive measures to not allow harassment by customers to their workers to take place. This can be done by creating a service manual in the event of a conflict with the customer, and also putting up signs to ask customers not to mistreat the employees. For call centers, there are voice recordings that encourage the callers to respond politely to those who pick up their calls. According to the ELPA, employees can take a temporary break from work and extend the time they rest between shifts. They also have access to mental treatments for issues caused by harassment they experienced, and managers must support their employees when they try to file a complaint against abusive customers. It even protects employees by punishing the company owners with a fine, if they do not abide by these rules.
“It is still very hard to prevent customers from abusing part-time workers,” said an anonymous convenience store manager. She added that, “Since our job requires us to constantly meet new people, this law is hardly applicable in reality. No one really explained this to me, so I was actually not aware of it.” Similarly, according to a survey done by Albamon, a total 80% of the workers felt that Worker Customer Balance is a positive trend. However, only 18% of respondents believed that it will actually work in the workplaces.
As the law remains incompetent in protecting the workers, companies themselves also have to join the Worker-Customer Balance movement. Fortunately, slow changes are taking place. There are department stores where workers wear uniforms with a message that reads: ‘Please respect the staff’ and ‘Please keep in mind that the person you are talking to is someone else’s child’.
Manager Lee pointed out, “No one can know if the customer is having a bad day or is stressed out. Therefore, it is especially difficult for people operating the restaurants, because making sure that the customers treat the employees with respect is not something you can always remind the customers verbally. However, lately I have been putting up signs to ask for respect and patience. Our hope is that customers will come in, sit down and before saying anything rude, they will look at the sign and have a chance to stop and think before speaking.”
What We Can Do as Customers
“A simple thank you from the customers after ordering a product really changes my mood for the day,” said Kang A-hyun. According to a survey done by Albamon, part-time workers felt most appreciated by their customers when they showed a sign of gratitude to them. The convenience store manager also pointed out that, “Compared to the past, there are more people who are understanding and polite. No one drops beer bottles then yells at the workers to come and clean up the mess. I think many people are starting to understand that workers are capable of being stressed. However, it is also true that there are customers who still think they are of a higher level than the workers.” Ultimately, consumers’ perceptions are as important to take note of as the Emotional Worker Protection Act and corporate manuals.