By Nina Berman on July 27th, 2021
Supporting Front-Facing Arts Workers in the Reopening
Big Ideas | How We Work | Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression | COVID-19
During the height of the pandemic, we saw exhortations to support frontline workers, to tip extravagantly, to be kind to the person providing phone support, and to remember that the person working behind the counter or on the delivery truck is potentially risking their life to get you what you are looking for. There was at least some understanding that the customer-facing workers are the people who actually keep the wheels running of our society.
And yet, as we’ve reopened more and more, these front-facing workers are being treated worse than ever.
We’ve seen this with airline workers and food service workers. We’ve seen workplaces institute days of self-care for their employees to help them survive the aggression they are seeing from customers. Abusive treatment by customers is contributing to mass job exoduses. While most news coverage tends to concentrate on these issues as they relate to the food and travel industries, it’s something we desperately need to talk about in the arts.
The arts industry is full of front-facing workers who are dealing with these issues themselves. People work at box offices, work security at institutions or at events, and run gift shops. People provide phone or email support to customers, donors, and members. And they are experiencing the same challenges that are common across the service sector. Reopening the arts sector isn’t just about figuring out how to put performers back on stages. It’s also about protecting the workers that are dealing with the public most intensely.
How Customers Have Been Treating Fractured Atlas Workers
This article and these reflections are prompted by a big uptick in inappropriate behavior that we’ve seen in our own member support, handled by our Programs team.
The Programs team provides support to members and to donors via phone and email, webinars, and the maintenance of a robust Knowledge Base. It’s a small team of seven (plus one temp) serving a community of 70,000 members. They support artists who are using our fiscal sponsorship and visa services, who are using Fractured Atlas as a fiscal sponsor for a grant application, raising money through our crowdfunding platform, and a whole host of other issues. In addition to helping our members manage the strategic and practical aspects of our service, they also assist with troubleshooting and tech support as they navigate our website and platform.
Like the rest of the Fractured Atlas team, our Programs team is made up of arts workers who are also artists themselves. Our current roster of Programs team members work in theater, voice acting, podcasting, and more. We support artists because we are artists. And sometimes we think that our customers forget that the people answering the phones are in the same boat as them, creatively.
In the past few months, we’ve seen an increase in members verbally abusing members of our Programs team, making unreasonable demands, demanding to bypass our legal protocols and jump the line of their fellow artists who are also seeking our support.
People have sent us emails in all caps, accused my coworkers of threatening behavior for simply following our legal protocols, cursed on the phone and via email.
One Program Associate received the following message via email in response to a request that a member submit correct documentation after submitting a kind of documentation we can’t accept. “This is ridiculous. I’ll resubmit the goddamn form...and then we’ll fucking start from scratch."
My coworker noted, “I have been working in customer service since I was 14 years old and I've had more negative interactions in my 2.5 years at Fractured Atlas than the rest of my jobs combined and it's gotten worse over the last few months. I appreciate how fiery and passionate our members are, but being an artist does not give you permission to lash out.”
We love supporting our members and believe deeply in your work, but we also want to be transparent about how some of us are routinely being treated.
Customer service roles sadly always require some handling of unpleasant or difficult customers. But it’s been getting worse and more frequent. We know that we’re not the only ones experiencing it. It’s hard on my coworkers and hard on team morale and resiliency. It’s harder to get back up again and again if you’re getting knocked down harder and more often.
Why Customers Are Treating Workers So Poorly
It’s impossible to know exactly why each individual customer or donor behaves the way that they do. When I’ve done customer service or service industry work in the past and encountered someone who randomly calls every phone number in a department to yell or someone who is unimaginably rude to the person making them their latte, I’ve fantasized about asking just why they think this behavior is acceptable. It’s an ongoing question.
But why has it gotten worse as the world is reopening? One could hope that 2020 taught people just how crucial front-facing workers are, reminded us that we have all been through traumas together, and that our fates are intertwined with one another’s. But instead, we’ve seen so much of the opposite behavior.
Here are our best guesses as to why members have been treating our team so poorly lately.
As the art world reopens and as people feel safe hosting and attending events, there is a sense of urgency for people who want to see their projects come to life. They want to get back to normal as fast as possible and to make up for lost time. They want to see their visions realized in a way that hasn’t been possible in a long time. Artists feel as though their project timeline is an emergency, or at least incredibly urgent. When many artists feel this way, things get backed up and people get frustrated.
It’s one of the ways that people are coping with the losses we’ve all experienced. Speaking personally, trying to jump back to what feels like “normal” is a way to heal.
But unfortunately, there’s a mismatch between what people want and what can be reasonably accomplished. This is true under ordinary circumstances, but it is especially true these days. Many workplaces laid off staff during the height of the pandemic and are consequently understaffed during the reopening. There is simultaneously more demand and fewer people there to meet that demand.
It’s also entirely possible that people have emerged from the past year or so feeling more isolated and individualistic after a long isolation. This might make it harder for them to empathize or to see that their needs are not unique or isolated. After so many months of thinking about yourself, your roommates, your family, your closest circle, it may be challenging for some to think more abstractly about a broader community that they can’t see.
We also believe that customers who treat workers poorly also do so because they think it’s anonymous. We have to assume that people will yell or curse at workers because they think that nobody will know about it or that it will be impossible to trace. However, this isn’t the case. I can’t speak for how every single workplace keeps track of problem customers or clients, but I can confirm that everywhere I have ever worked has had either a formal or informal system to share stories of bad behavior with one another.
How Fractured Atlas Protects Our Front-Facing Workers
We know that front-facing workers in many different industries and sectors are facing the brunt of bad customer behavior that’s only gotten worse during the reopening.
While we can encourage our customers, members, or people that we interact with to treat front-facing workers with dignity, we know that it’s sadly impossible to protect our colleagues from disrespectful, aggressive, and abusive behavior. We can, however, put some structures in place to help support front-facing workers and empower them in these interactions.
We hope that sharing some of the strategies that we use to support our colleagues can help other teams looking to assist front-facing workers struggling to deal with an increase in bad customer behavior.
We’ve been using our Negative Customer Service Interaction Tactics matrix for several years.
Originally instituted in 2018 as part of our commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression, this document empowers our staff to protect themselves in instances where customers are behaving in a harmful manner. Requirements of professionalism and a belief that “the customer is always right” are manifestations of white supremacy culture and as an organization committed to anti-racism, we have to undo those assumptions.
This guide offers a variety of tactics for staffers to employ in negative interactions–including simply ending the call–as they see fit. Staff are empowered to tell members or donors that the way they are communicating is unacceptable and to escalate the conversation to a higher-level staff member if they so choose. None of the responses in this matrix will have a negative impact on their standing at the org as they might in other workplaces.
It’s important for us to ensure that staff members get to decide how they want to respond in a moment; that they are trusted to make the right decision for themselves and for the situation.
Plus, we internally encourage staffers to vent or take breaks after particularly bad interactions.
If an encounter is particularly egregious or if someone has a repeated history of abusing Fractured Atlas staffers, we will end our fiscal sponsorship relationship with them.
Operationally, we keep track of bad calls or other negative interactions in both Slack and in our own internal admin panel. We have a dedicated “Bad Call” Slack Channel for the Programs team to share information about inappropriate interactions, the phone number associated, and to determine the action steps that are taken. This lets us create a record in case there are repeat offenses.
Ultimately, though, these structures that we put in place aren’t able to protect members of the Programs team from abusive behavior. We are still struggling against the wave of abusive behavior that is being thrown at our Programs team.
Supporting Workers in the Reopening
As we reopen the arts sector and other industries, it’s absolutely imperative that we take care of the people who are at the forefront of that reopening; the people who are making it possible. We need to enforce the cultural expectations of appropriate behavior to customer service workers and to create structures in our workplaces to protect and empower those workers in moments of inappropriate customer behavior.
If organizations, workplaces, and institutions fail to take care of front-facing workers, we will lose those people in our industry and be the worse for it. We will be doing the opposite of what we’ve said that we wanted after this extended pause, to build back a better arts sector that works for more of us.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.