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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Unconscious Bias Makes The Holidays Even More Stressful

No one takes the heat of the holidays like customer service representatives.

I prefer to avoid the Whole Foods parking lot between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

People seem like they’re in anything but the holiday spirit. Between the drivers competing for spaces to the pedestrians darting in and out, the tension is thick. In the store everybody’s rushing around.

People seem more stressed, more tired, and less kind in “the happiest time of the year.”

And the people who take a disproportionate part of the heat in the holidays are the people in customer-facing roles: the receptionist, the cashier, the ticket taker.

They’re the first people seen by the public, charged with representing their institution. And they’re often among the lowest paid employees.

But somehow it seems socially acceptable to vent frustration at them.

I hear how tough it can be for people in these roles when we work with clients. Customer-facing positions are disproportionately filled by people of color. They’re younger on average, with fewer advanced degrees. Because of these patterns, they may have borne the brunt of people’s biases their whole lives, in a range of settings.

The holiday rudeness adds injury to insult. In focus groups, they make it clear: I deserve to be treated better.

Unconscious biases compound the disrespect. Something tells us we’re better than that person at the front desk. They wouldn’t be here if they worked harder, had more maturity or more education.

To check for your biases, imagine the person on the other side was a tall white man in a tailored suit—someone with the air of wealth. Would you express your irritation differently?

Or just imagine that the person was your neighbor. My daughter endured a lot of rudeness and attitude when she worked as a receptionist in a hair salon in our town. If the customers knew that she was in effect their neighbor and a soon-to-be Phi Beta Kappa college grad, would they have treated her more kindly?

Meanwhile, if you employ people who work on the front line of our social and commercial lives, make sure you have their back, supporting them with organizational systems. Yes, “the customer is right,” but first-class customer service doesn’t mean exposure to constant harassment. Your training should provide them with de-escalating phrases they can practice. Your policies should provide for a supervisor to step in when they need to remove themselves.

I have to admit, I’m plenty stressed myself. With regular personal worries, plus holiday obligations, plus the global anxieties of war, hunger, poverty, and so on, this happy time of year feels heavy. So much is out of our control.

That’s why it’s important to focus on one thing we can adjust: our behaviors toward each other. Let’s be kind to one another and enjoy the many holidays this season has to offer.

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