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You might call them clients. Customers. Users. Patients. Or patrons.

Whatever we call them, most of us serve somebody with the product we produce or the service we provide.

Some of us come face to face with the people we serve in what are often called “front line positions.”

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that “front line” is also a military term for the part of an army that is closest to the enemy. You’ll see it defined as “an area of potential or actual conflict or struggle.”

That sums it up nicely, doesn’t it?

The analyses of the Great Resignation point to a quest for higher pay, better hours, and more stability as people decide it’s time to move on. They’re leaving the leisure, hospitality, and retail industries in particular, in unprecedented numbers.

While some critics grumble about lazy workers coasting on unemployment and pandemic relief payments, most experts say the 40-million or so people who quit their jobs last year are not sitting around today eating bonbons.

They’re back at work.

At a better job for higher pay.

It’s worth noting that even as millions of employees were looking at the door, the quit rate stayed pretty steady – and low – in finance, media, and technology.

Knowledge workers are pushing for flexible schedules and less time in the office; some are even forming unions. They like working from home, and they are working.

Meanwhile, in restaurants, resorts, and retail stores you still see the signs of the Big Quit. Hours are shorter, lines are longer, and services are limited for lack of staff. And some establishments have closed altogether as the people who run them complain they can’t get help.

The New York Times quotes a sign outside a McDonald’s: “No one wants to work anymore.”

It also quotes the former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich: “No one wants to be exploited anymore.”

I’m going to say they also don’t want to be insulted, abused, and assaulted anymore.

For many workers, those customers, clients, users, patients, and patrons are precisely the problem, and it’s a tough one to solve.

Yes, wages are an issue, and they’ve increased dramatically in retail, hospitality, and leisure as the number of people seeking jobs in those industries has shrunk.

And yes, more businesses are offering increased hours and steadier schedules in place of the “just-in-time” scheduling that was convenient for bosses and a nightmare for their staff.

Companies may find it’s a challenge to raise pay and change shifts. That’s nothing compared to the challenge of making their customers behave.

How about health care?

The departure rate is high there too. You’ve probably seen the stories about health care workers changing jobs, with many leaving medicine behind altogether. Nearly 20% of them have made a switch since the pandemic began.

Salaries are an issue, of course, but most experts blame burnout for the huge shift underway in hospitals, nursing homes, and medical offices.

And then there’s this. 65% of nurses say they’ve been verbally or physically attacked by a patient or family member. Yikes!

In health care as in hospitality and retail, one big reason workers are leaving “front line jobs” is the people on the other side of the line. The ones they deal with day in and day out. The ones who are demanding and rude and occasionally even violent.

Those individuals have so much impact on workers’ willingness to work, Axios went so far as to call unruly customers a threat to economic recovery.

What do we do about the people problem?

We talked a while back, you and I, about just being nice. Doing whatever small things each of us can do every day to counter rampant negativity with positive vibes. 

I’d like to think we’re making progress with that. But the evidence doesn’t seem to support such a conclusion, does it?

It’s way past time for leaders, corporate and otherwise, to lead. And that has to mean more than putting a sign in their lobby begging customers/patrons/patients to behave themselves.

NYT cites a Michigan restaurant chain acknowledging that abusive customers are a challenge and promising not to put up with it. “If a guest refuses to calm down and treat our staff with respect, we empower our managers to ask that guest to leave the restaurant.”

Businesses are within their rights to prevent people from returning once they’ve been kicked out for bad behavior. And they should. They’re not obliged to let the miscreants come back when they’ve simmered down.

And I’d like to see political leaders tone down their name-calling and nastiness and set a much higher tone for public discourse. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I am appalled by much of what I see and hear from elected officials at just about every level.

I’m not talking about the occasional vulgarity or swear word. I want them to stop being so hateful.

When their speeches, Tweets, and interviews are all about “owning” the opposition instead of promoting their policies and programs, they probably do appeal to their own followers. That bonding with the base comes at a cost though … and all of us are paying it.

I guess asking leaders to lead still leaves people like us putting a finger in the dike trying to stop a torrent of ugliness. If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.