Professionalism When Customers Are Screaming Harpies

by admin on April 10, 2014

I am submitting this to eHell in hopes of getting a bit of advice on how to handle a highly confrontational situation with a member of the public and my supervisor. I can be an unthinking twit sometimes, and while I honestly do not think I’ve done anything wrong perhaps I am too close to the issue. I would welcome any helpful comments.

Here is what happened:

I work for a public high school as the database clerk. I manage the data on the students, input it, analyze it, compile it and just generally make sure that it’s all there and available to anyone who needs it.

Last summer (I work all summer) a parent came by two weeks before school began to update her address with us. She brought in proof of residency (an official piece of mail, in this case some correspondence from a utilities company) and her ID. I went to the copier to make copies of both when I noticed that the names didn’t match. I went back to her and asked: “Ma’am I’ve noticed that your name isn’t the same on these documents, did you change your name recently for any reason?”

She shrieks at me: “That is NONE OF YOUR business! You shouldn’t be asking about that!” When I say shriek, I mean shriek. She startled me so bad I jumped. A co-worker came running, thinking I was in danger of some kind. The parent continued to yell saying that if I was going to ask such personal questions I shouldn’t do it in a public waiting room but instead take her to my private office. (She used different language and a much higher volume but that was her ultimate point. I think.)

I would like to point out that it was summer, there wasn’t anyone in the room with us. My co-worker who came running was within ear shot of yelling but not normal speaking voices. But I was so flustered by her outburst that I didn’t think to say that, I only apologized and asked if she’d like to go into my office. She yelled that no, she did not. Took back her documents and stormed away. I wrote the incident off as just another peril of working with the public.

Several weeks later, just after school began the same parent returned to drop something off. She took one look at me and started yelling again. My principal was in that waiting room seeing another family and quickly came over to see what was wrong. The parent expressed her unhappiness at my continued employment in the most impolite terms possible and at great volume. She said that she did not want her child’s file to “…be handled by this woman in any way! She does not like me, she does not like my child and I will not have that kind of attitude around my children!” (I have never met her child; the school I work in has over 1800 students.)

I have never been so verbally abused in my life. And I worked in retail before the public sector. My principal let this parent go on at some length, completely disrupting the waiting room and creating quite a spectacle. I did not speak up, rather waited for my principal to make the first move or comment. Finally, my principal turns to me and simply dismisses me back to my office. I fled.

What should I have done? My principal was right there listening to this woman abuse one of her employees. Should I have deferred to her as I did that day? Or should I have spoken up for myself, regardless that my direct supervisor was right there and was technically the one in charge? What do you do when faced with someone who is being unreasonable at such a high volume like that? She was right during our first encounter, you should never ask personal questions of someone in a public setting like I did, but I honestly didn’t think anything of it at the time because we were alone, despite being in the waiting room. Again, I welcome any advice! 0404-14

You do not reciprocate in kind whatsoever.   One has to trust that people recognize a drama queen and the more the histrionics, the less credible they appear.   By remaining calm, you present an image of professionalism and credibility.     It’s like that video that went viral of the female customer screeching in the Apple store.   No one had pity on her, other customers were either bemused or thought she was loony and meanwhile the store employees remained calm and in control.   Who lost in that scenario?


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Enna April 12, 2014 at 4:30 am

By lettering her scream and shout the principal was showing to everyone how rude and unresonable this woman is. Also it means there are wittnesses to her behaviour. The OP has done NOTHING wrong. owever it needs to be followed up. The screaming harpy needs to have a meeting with the principal about her behaviour and it needs to be explained to her that one 1) the OP has done nothing wrong. 2) Screaming is unacceptable and 3) lies are also unacceptable.

I work at at GP surgery and if there is no one around then it is okay to talk in recpetion to a patient if it is something a bit personal. However asking about addresses and names is not a personal thing especially if there is no one nearby who can hear if you are talking in normal volume. I think OP should follow up with her HR/Manager/Principal/Supiors.


M April 14, 2014 at 9:58 am

As soon as I read this story, this video came to mind, beware it is NSFW due to the customer dropping many expletives.

I worked in a bank for a couple of years and triple checking information against ID’s, account histories, etc. was a critical part of my job to help evade fraud. I can’t count how many times I have been yelled at, cursed at, and threatened for simply trying to even ask for ID. -__-

I noticed OP wrote, ““Ma’am I’ve noticed that your name isn’t the same on these documents, did you change your name recently for any reason?” Another way that someone may perceive this question is that she is digging in to their personal life without reason. I would have rephrased it as, ““Ma’am I’ve noticed that your name isn’t the same on these documents, I just want to make sure if there were any changes to your/your child’s personal information due to “insert school update policy here”. We just want to make sure your information is up to date in the event we need to reach you about regarding your child.”

OP you did the right thing to not engage the crazy. I would have also explained the situation to the principal after the incident so at the very least they were made aware and to be prepared when the parent returned.


Lins April 14, 2014 at 7:13 pm

I would definitely report the incident with your supervisor. Sometimes these things can be awkward, but it’s always best to CYA in the workplace. I learned it the hard way when I was 19, I lost a job opportunity I worked really hard to get because I ignored what I thought was no big deal. A 70 year old client of the company spoke to me in an inappropriate way, I didn’t know the person, nor did I care past feeling creeped out at the time. I just moved on from it because I had work to do and wouldn’t see him again anyway. Apparently, the client told someone that he was going to marry me, ick, which somehow made it’s way through the rumor mill and because I didn’t report the incident, my boss told me I was in some sort of relationship with this person I met once and it was inappropriate for me to continue to work there. When i told him it wasn’t true, he said he might have believed me if I reported it. Then of course told me the real reason I was being let go was because I went to the bathroom at the wrong time a few weeks earlier(not an actual policy).

A horrible experience at the time, but at least I don’t work there anymore, lol. I save myself a lot of grief by always reporting anything having to do with verbal altercations, threats, and sexual statements. While these things don’t really bother me too much, it’s on the record and I don’t have to worry about it anymore. And remember, there’s often a difference between reporting and having something done about it, I usually just have them file it and tell them not to do anything about it and I get back to work.


Goldie April 17, 2014 at 11:11 am

I went back to my maiden name last year, three years after my divorce. For the first six months after the name change, I had to carry my name change certificate with me everywhere, because, anytime my new name didn’t match what was on anyone’s file, they wanted to see the name change cert. and make a copy.

At a school district especially, like other commenters noted, when someone comes in with two documents that have different names on them, “fraud” is one of the first things that comes to mind. It was the parent’s responsibility to cover her, um, assets, and make sure her paperwork is in order. OP was exactly right to ask whether the parent had changed her name.

Also, the way OP phrased is does not sound personal to me at all! That parent should grow a thicker skin. In my case, most of the time, people took one look at a new last name and told me “Congratulations on getting married!” I admit I sometimes gave them a puzzled stare, but did I ever yell “HOW DARE YOU, I GOT DIVORCED NOT MARRIED, YOU TAKE THAT BACK RIGHT NOW!!” Um, nope, I’m an adult.


MB (OP) April 17, 2014 at 7:14 pm

OP here, thank you guys so much for all the comments and advice. It has been a huge help to me. I few of you asked for a bit more information/update on the situation so I thought I’d fill you all in.

I did go and speak to my principal later that day about the second incident. I was relieved to find that she hadn’t thought anything of it. Her exact words were something along the lines of: “M, when someone is behaving that badly, I rarely believe a word coming out of their mouth.” We had a good laugh at that and I explained my prior interaction with the woman, saying that my co-worker (the one that came running to see what was wrong, she stayed with me in the office until the woman had stormed out and heard everything she said to me) was willing to back me up. My principal told me that wasn’t necessary and that was how I left the conversation.

I see now (again, thanks entirely to your helpful comments) that my principal not stopping the woman from yelling was just her way of not “engaging the crazy”. Seeing her silence from this point of view has helped me enormously. You guys are right, there was very little she could have done when the woman was ranting and sending me out of the room was clearly one of the only ways that 1) protected me from getting yelled at further and 2) would possibly calm her down.

Lastly, I never did find out why her name was changed (it was her last name that was different). I always do my due diligence when it comes to address changes (shout out to all my fellow school clerks/teachers/counselors/admins who posted!) so I ended up asking the student’s guidance counselor to help me out with that one. I had no desire to interact with the woman (and clearly she never wanted to see me again) and the counselor was happy to help. The woman eventually got her driver’s license changed so it matched the name on the utilities bill.

Interesting side note: I actually met the woman’s daughter a couple of weeks ago on an unrelated issue. The child is one of the nicest kids I’ve had the fortune to work with! Her father’s influence perhaps?


GrizzMagoo April 18, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Have also worked in a school as a child accountant and lead secretary….I don’t think you did anything wrong. You noticed a discrepancy and followed-up on it…which is your job to do as the data manager of a large student body.

My favorite time of year was during immunization exclusion…we had to exclude students who did not have their updated shot records on file…parents just love that.

Or calling parents to come pick up their child due to behavior issues…that’s fun too.

Definitely explain the entire situation to your principal, so that she knows…but I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. Chances are your boss has experience with angry parents.


Joanna April 22, 2014 at 9:07 am

I too work in a school system, and often have to ask for proof of residency, proof of ID, etc. 99% of the parents are just fine with this, but I do get the occasional shrieker as well.

All I do is tell the parent calmly, “Ma’am/Sir, I am asking you for your child’s own safety.”

And it’s absolutely true. Contrary to what the person may believe, I have absolutely zero interest in their personal life. However, I live in an urban area where a large number of parents have never been married to their child’s other parent, have contentious relationships with the other parent (it’s not unheard of for a non-custodial parent to try to withdraw or enroll a child, and then we find out that they actually have kidnapped that child by law). It’s also not uncommon in my area for “the community to raise the child,” i.e. Little Jayden was born to a single mom with various issues, so he was sent over to Grandma’s house for a few months. Then other relatives came to Grandma’s, so Jayden was sent to his “auntie’s” (often not even an actual relative, just a family friend who is CALLED “auntie”), etc. None of this is done legally.

Honestly, I myself never even imagined some of these scenarios before personally experiencing them, so I can well understand that many parents who also never knew such things could be indignant about being asked. But once you DO see these things – and sadder yet, see how common they are – then you absolutely have to ask and re-ask, if there is the slightest thing in question. Better have a parent be upset than have a child turn up missing or dead, you know?


Dust Bunny April 22, 2014 at 11:40 am

For the record: Sometimes you have to ask “personal questions” to do a job. I work in a position that is not a reference librarian, but has some similarities, and sometimes I have to ask for birthdates, possible alternative surnames, etc., to find information. I always explain why I am asking things like this and try to make clear that I have no personal interest in the client’s family history. A lot of the people who call me are adoptees trying to find birth parents and are self-conscious about my finding out that their mother was an unwed fifteen-year-old, or whatever. I don’t care. I mean, I care to the point that I hope that their search goes well and has a happy ending, but I’m not going to pass judgment on whatever they tell me. I’m not going to tell anyone else, except possibly my boss if I really need help. I’m not going to comment on it.

I’ve gotten some touchy answers but, thank goodness, never had anyone really go off on me, and even the prickly ones generally back down once they understand why I’m asking what I’m asking. But obviously I couldn’t do that with somebody screaming at me. Sheesh.


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