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?

 

{ 82 comments… read them below or add one }

June First April 10, 2014 at 2:23 am

She was supposed to provide proof of residency. Presumably this was to confirm her address, a part of her identifying information. Her name is obviously part of her identifying information. Your question seems reasonable. You weren’t asking loudly whether she brought a second credit card since hers was declined.
How disappointing your boss didn’t cut this woman off when she was being disrespectful. I volunteer in an elementary school and “be respectful” is part of their daily mission for students and staff.

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essie April 10, 2014 at 10:49 am

I agree. IMO, the woman knew her child wasn’t eligible to be in that school district and brought in someone else’s mail (hopefully with their knowledge), hoping the LW would be looking at the address and not the name – or names, as it turned out to be. She got mad because she got caught and started screaming at you in an attempt to change the subject. I had a high school friend do the same thing. She came home from a date and went to bed. When her Mom looked in on her an hour later, she discovered my friend had snuck out again. Confronted with her violation the next day, my friend started screaming “You had NO RIGHT to come in my room! You invaded my privacy!” etc. and threw such a tantrum, her mother forgot all about the broken curfew. My friend bragged that that was how she kept her mother “off my back” about everything she did.

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Lenore April 11, 2014 at 10:14 am

HAHAH! That would never have worked on my Mom in a million years. She would knock before coming into my bedroom, but the fact still stands that my childhood room was in HER house and therefore part of HER property and she can waltz in and out as she pleased :)

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La April 11, 2014 at 9:29 pm

I did solve that problem, but I had to resort to some rather crude methods to do so.

(Trust me it’s amazing what you can do with some carefully placed props, specially arranged bedsheets, a hastily slammed laptop lid and a mortified, guilty expression.)

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Mya April 10, 2014 at 2:53 am

I think this parent is overreacting on a massive scale. I don’t even think you did anything wrong by challenging the person on the mismatching names. You are there to provide a service, there are rules you have to abide by for pupil safety and data integrity. It was not wrong of you to ask politely if there had been a recent name change – after all, how do you know that this person wasn’t trying it on or that she hadn’t given you the wrong letter? I honestly don’t even think this necessitated privacy either tbh (although perhaps things are different where you live but in the UK we’re fairly used to discussing things like this in front of others – Doctors waiting rooms for example. If you pick up a prescription you have to confirm your name and address in front of others).

Obviously the parent is in the wrong but your manager did not support or back you up and allowed you to be verbally abused. This sounds like a matter for HR for me. Make sure you write as accurate an account as possible of both occasions with the exact wording (however uncomfortable the swearing makes you, it is necessary that the account be accurate) then discuss the incident with HR. If you were not breaking any laws or rules then your employer should take steps to protect you from this behaviour up to and including informing the parent that she is not permitted on school property.

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Margaret April 10, 2014 at 3:42 am

Have you ever noticed what police officers do when they are dealing with someone who is verbally flipping out? They remain calm. They don’t argue. They might repeat a statement like, “You need to calm down.” I was involved in an incident recently where someone was behaving badly and ended up yelling at me. The person knew their original behaviour was wrong, so when I told her to stop, I expected her to actually stop. I was thrown for a loop when instead, she started yelling at me. I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t want to back down either, so I just kept repeating, “We do not tolerate that behaviour here” (referring to the original thing she had done) and “You need to calm down” (referring to her yelling at me). It was incredibly uncomfortable, but someone who had seen it told me later that they thought I handled it very well. So I think that although you felt bewildered by the attack, your response was the correct thing to do. I think with someone like that, there is pretty much nothing you can do that would satisfy them in the moment.

As for the second attack — it would have been better if the principal had told the parent that abuse of staff is not tolerated, but maybe she has found that the best way to deal with that sort of parent is to let them wear themselves out and not argue. Maybe she’s already had an encounter with this parent. Who knows. You didn’t mention being reprimanded by the principal for the original incident or having your work duties changed (i.e. not dealing with the child’s file). So the parent has made herself look like bad, and ultimately she is NOT getting her way about not having you deal with her child’s file. Sounds like you win.

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lkb April 10, 2014 at 4:08 am

I agree with the Admin in that the OP did nothing wrong.

However, hindsight being 20/20, as soon as the second incident was over and the screeching parent had left, I would have taken the principal aside and told her what that was all about.

I would also write out a report of what happened in both incidents, dated and perhaps even witnessed by the coworker from the first incident and perhaps the principal of the second. Keep a copy in your own records and perhaps ask that that another copy be inserted in your personal file. There’s no way of knowing that this won’t come up again. While you don’t want to engage the crazy, you don’t want to be defenseless against her either.

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Karen T April 10, 2014 at 4:40 am

Actually, I don’t think it is unreasonable to question someone’s name when they are providing documents specifically for the purposes of verifying their identity. Otherwise what’s the point in them giving them? Even if the room is normally a public setting, it sounds like the OP was not indiscreet in her question.
I would probably have a discussion with the principal about the situation and how it was handled. She should have taken control of the situation, not let the woman go on and on.

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lakey April 10, 2014 at 11:36 am

Not only is it not unreasonable, it is necessary. In school systems, people who don’t live in a particular school system sometimes try to get their children in that system through various scams, including using documents that make it seem that they live at an address where they don’t live.

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manybellsdown April 11, 2014 at 10:53 am

Yes, I recently moved into a VERY good school district, and they needed a LOT of documentation to prove my child could attend that school. I had to provide my lease because I hadn’t even gotten utility bills at my address yet. Before that, my house was literally 100 feet off the boundary of a better school district and I couldn’t persuade them to let me enroll my child.

The school is at capacity and they had a lot of parents trying to skirt the attendance boundary. Happens anywhere there’s a distinct difference between School A and School B and C.

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Margo April 10, 2014 at 4:44 am

I think you were fine. The principal was appropriate in sending you away to protect you from continuing to be abused by this individual.

Do you know what the principal said to her afterwards? It think it would be entirely appropriate for you to speak to your supervisor to ask her whether there is a policy as to how to deal with threatening or abusive visitors. It may be that your supervisor can write to this parent to make it clear to her that abusive behaviour towards staff is not appropriate.

It’s harder when someone is there in person but you can also speak to your supervisor about what you are/are not allowed to do. (For instance, we have a policy which allows reception staff to put the phone down (after a warning) on clients who are verbally abusive, and of someone comes into the office and is verbally abusive then the reception staff are instructed to contact one of us (Partners) and we will deal with it. We do not expect an employee to deal with someone who is abusive towards them.

I

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Angeldrac April 10, 2014 at 5:16 am

I want to comment on the video: I can actually feel empathy for this lady. Yes, I know we should all be well behavior grownups, but this woman has obviously been given the run around be Apple, thought she was going to get what she needed in the store, hauled her baby in there and now has been told they can’t help her after all. How many other tired frazzled mothers out there have been on the brink of similar public tantrums? I know I have – and it was only by some miracle I got back to my car before the tears and frustration overflowed.

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The Elf April 10, 2014 at 11:02 am

Yeah, being on the receiving end of bad (“bad” depending on your point of view) customer service blows. When I’m in that position, I try not to lose it but rather level a gaze at the employee and insist on seeing the manager/supervisor/owner. That’s what they’re there for – to handle the problems beyond the capability (or authority) of the desk/floor level employees.

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Molly April 10, 2014 at 11:20 am

I agree totally. I’ve noticed that the older I get the more empathic I am to other people and usually wonder about the “other side of the story.” Maybe she was facing some incredible challenges in her life at that time (cheating husband, dying mother, sick child, etc) and that is the moment the frustrations became overwhelming and she erupted. Assuming no other explanation than she is an over privileged housewife seems pretty shallow to me.

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catherine April 10, 2014 at 11:26 pm

I believe that even though you might be facing challenges in your life, it’s no excuse to take it out on an employee who has nothing to do with the situation. Screaming and berating an employee might make you feel a little better by venting it and getting it out of your system, but that employee may be dealing with serious issues themselves, and it puts them in a situation where they can’t argue back or they get fired and they have a breakdown or take it out on some one else who doesn’t deserve it…When you feel like exploding, just say I’m sorry, I’m having a bad day, walk away and talk yourself down. Retail employees will thank you for it :D

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Shannan April 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Apple didn;t tell her they couldn’t help her. They said she needed an appointment. I know at AT&T you sign in and wait to be called. Either way, she wasn’t refused service…….

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Margaret April 10, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Uh, actually, the first time I needed help at an apple store, I called on the way in to the city (I live 200 miles away), and the person I spoke to told me to come into the store and they could help me. When I got to the store, the person dealing with appointments told me that I had to have an appointment booked (hadn’t been mentioned by the person who answered my call), but he would look and see what he could do. He found an appointment for me about 30 minutes later. You know what I did? I said thank you, and we hung around playing on the ipads until the appointment. And that was me with a baby and a preschooler and two early elementary aged kids after a 2 1/2 hour drive. So actually, I have a lot of empathy for the situation that lady was in, and pretty much zero sympathy for her.

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Janos April 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Yes, the person who screamed verbal abuse at someone (twice) is the one that needs the empathy.

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Peppergirl April 11, 2014 at 5:16 am

Sorry, but I have no sympathy when someone behaves that way. The people deserving of the sympathy are the ones she was screaming at, and the people who had to witness it.

Regardless of what struggles we face, we can’t treat others badly or behave like a shrieking banshee in public. If you don’t like the service you’re receiving, you calmly ask for a manager.

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The Elf April 11, 2014 at 6:58 am

Yes, and I’m sorry if I didn’t make that point clear. All I was saying is that we’ve all had enough bad customer service (though I’m not convinced this was that level) to be frustrated enough to scream. Clearly, we should endeavor not to. And if we do fail, we should apologize. The empathy is coming not from thinking she at all did the right thing by losing her cool, but by inward cringing of having been there or been tempted to do the same.

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Library Diva April 11, 2014 at 8:39 am

I agree. Having trouble in your life, whether major or minor, does not grant you a license to take it out on everyone around you. If your personal issues are that overwhelming to you, maybe this is not the moment to be trying to get your iGadget serviced…maybe you do without the damn thing for a day or two, or ask one of the friends or family members who offer their help in times of trial to take care of it for you. It doesn’t seem like she’s been refused service. She just didn’t want to have to wait. Doesn’t give her the right to scream.

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Angeldrac April 12, 2014 at 2:56 pm

Let me just clarify, I don’t think she was I the right at and do feel far more for the employee and yes, whatever is going on in a persons life doesn’t give them permission to behave like that BUT, as one human being to another, I cannot cast the customer straight into the fiery pits of e-hell as there is clearly more going on here than what meets the eye. I do wonder if she, like me, would have gone and had a big cry in her car and felt terrible for reacting like that – I think it’s not unlikely.

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tessa April 10, 2014 at 5:18 am

Asking the lady if her name changed for some reason is a simple question. And the answer could be ” I got married/I got divorced and took back a maiden name/I like the German version better”. Simple answer. Too bad she can’t see it that way.

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Cora April 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Actually, it’s even simpler, the way the OP phrased it:

OP: “Did you change your name for some reason?”

Parent: “Yes.”

No violation of privacy, confirmation for security, end of story. GEEZ people work themselves up over dumb reasons.

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La April 10, 2014 at 5:29 am

Holy overreaction, Batman!

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Yasuragi April 10, 2014 at 5:58 am

In a professional, public setting never match crazy punch for punch. Everyone within ear shot saw that she was the loon in the situation. There’s no need to defend yourself when everyone is already on your side. If you had tried to defend yourself it would only have escalated the situation.

Neutral gaze. Nod occasionally. Don’t let them see you become upset.

Yes, they’ll walk away thinking they “won” the confrontation while you’re left upset and shaken. But there’s a saying about wrestling with pigs that is very, very true.

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UKHelen April 10, 2014 at 6:10 am

Unless you don’t trust your supervisor’s judgement, I wouldn’t worry about this. Has your supervisor mentioned it since then? I don’t see that you did anything wrong at all.

You were checking this parent’s documents and found they were inconsistent. Your question to her was justified and polite, there was no-one else around and if she was sensitive about her name-change and worried that someone might come in in the middle of her explanation, she could have said, “Is there somewhere private we could discuss this?”. But no, she chose to behave like an idiot, in front of you and your co-worker. Then she repeated her rudeness, exaggeration and Special Snowflakeness in front of other people, all of whom (I hope) thought she was nuts.

You? You’re a professional, doing your job in a professional manner. Good for you.

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Saucygirl April 10, 2014 at 6:11 am

I think you made no mistakes during the first interaction, especially since you immediately apologized and im assuming its important for names to match to ensure they truly live in the school zone. I think you also did fine during the second interaction, for exactly the reason admin gave. For that same reason, the principal was okay letting her rant and seem insane, especially since given your description, he probably wouldn’t have been able to get her into his office or to quiet down. So letting you leave was good. The question on how to handle in future, if it happens again, then depends on what your principal did once the parent left. Did he find you, get your side, agree with your actions and say to disregard the parent? Or did he actually place any blame on you? If he’s on your side, I’d just continue to follow his lead. If he’s not on your side, I still probably wouldn’t try to argue with an irrational parent, but I would stay present during the rant to ensure you know the whole story of what both parent and principal say, so you can defend yourself properly later, as needed. Good luck! It is tough to work in a school

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Charliesmum April 10, 2014 at 6:47 am

Not only that but you asked a reasonable question. Her documents didn’t match, and it’s important I’m sure for safety reasons to make sure they do match. And it’s not that personal a question, honestly. People get married, and get divorced, and change their name. The documents have to match. She was an idiot.

I do hope you at least explained to the boss what she was going on about, and I hope he sided with you. She strikes me as the type of person you read about in the ‘Not Always Right’ website.

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Jewel April 10, 2014 at 6:57 am

The parent was shrieking and carrying on to distract you from the fact that she was attempting to enroll her child in your school using fraudulent information. Most likely, she took the utility bill out of the mailbox of someone who lives in your school’s enrollment area. When caught, the least that would happen is her child would be denied admittance. The worst is that the police would be called and she’d be charged with attempted fraud, identity theft, and violation of United States Code, Title 18, Section 1708 (which is a federal offense).

Since you’ve worked retail, which is the best job ever to observe and be subjected to every type of human behavior, I’m surprised you haven’t developed a thicker skin when confronted by a clearly irrational customer by now. Your principal handled her correctly. There would have been no way for the principal to resolve the situation by raising her own voice or by attempting to shut this woman down. She abided by the e-hell adage of “Don’t engage the crazy” and let the woman wind down at her own pace.

I do hope your principal ended up investigating the veracity of that student’s enrollment information. I also hope she banned the parent from stepping on to campus for the remainder of the school year and/or told her that another outburst like that would be handled by the school’s resource officer (which may result in her arrest).

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Enna April 12, 2014 at 4:20 am

I think the LW was thown off guard with this out burst – especially if a colleague anda suprior both came out to make sure she wasn’t being attacked.

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Cherry91 April 10, 2014 at 6:58 am

I agree with Admin that you shouldn’t have engaged the crazy.

That said, I do feel that the principal should have stopped the situation faster, by requesting that the woman either stop verbally abusing you or leave, but it’s entirely possible that she was as taken aback as you.

I would advise document, document, document what happened, both instances. She wanted you fired, and as we’ve seen in the forums, some folks are willing to stoop very low to get what they want.

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PM April 10, 2014 at 7:08 am

OP, you asked a legitimate question in the course of handling this lady’s information. Her meltdown was unwarranted and profane. Her second meltdown was ridiculous. She expected you to be fired because ONE parent had a problem with her? Really? And shame on your principal for standing there and letting her rant and disrupt. You did the right thing, not responding.

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Susan April 10, 2014 at 7:13 am

It sounds like the Principal recognized crazy and didn’t engage. Anything she would have said defending you probably would have escalated the situation further. What did she say to you after the woman left?

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The Elf April 10, 2014 at 7:32 am

Any reasonable objection she may have had* over the question about her name was negated by the name-calling and yelling. She was rude. Flat-out rude. It would be reasonable to shut her down and say “I am not having this conversation at this time. You may speak with my supervisor if you so desire.” I’ve pulled that one out before with success.

* I personally don’t see the objection. Questioning the two different names is a security issue. There are many legitimate reasons to have a name change, and given the yelling I’m thinking “recently divorced” and the divorce was either bitter or unwanted (or both). The other common reasons for a recent name change are likely to produce satisfaction or happy stories.

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Huh April 10, 2014 at 8:06 am

OP, I see nothing at all wrong at all to question someone when that person is bringing in documents to update information and the name on the paper and the way you verify it (the ID) do not match. You are verifying her identity, and there is no reason for her to flip out at all. I fail to see why you need to take someone into a private office to verify their identity. If this lady is worried about you speaking her name or possibly address aloud in a room with no one around (is she Voldemort or Beetlejuice?) I hate to tell her this, but the Internet already has that information.

Yes, I think your principal should have done something, but when someone’s on a crazy rant like that, there is nothing you can say to them that’s suddenly going to make them see the light. I have at several points in my job had a parent screaming at me that I had a grudge against them/their child/their school. Every time has been over the phone, and every time no amount of calm logic would appease them, they were just crazy mad over quite honestly, NOTHING. I don’t want to go into details here, but it was over the smallest, trivial things that no normal person would care about that they were frothing mad. Nothing I had done was wrong or incorrect, it’s just their child/school was a SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE!

I remember actually telling a parent once, “Ma’am, I don’t know you or your child. I am not from this area. At the time of X incident (what she was claiming I was ‘holding a grudge’ for against her child) I was in elementary school in (a state many states away).” She finally agreed that I probably did not care about X incident but someone else in my office must, and that’s why they were holding a grudge against them! :0

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DGS April 10, 2014 at 8:07 am

You did absolutely the right thing in not reciprocating in any way, and I wouldn’t berate your principle too much for basically, letting this woman carry on loudly, because to confront her or attempt to reprimand her in any way would result in her escalating still further. The smartest thing to have done was for you to have stepped out of sight (which you did – your principle prudently asked you to go back to your office), at which point, the principle might have attempted to de-escalate her and have her disruptive, obnoxious presence gradually removed from the office.

Never, ever engage with this kind of person. There are multiple possibilities – one, that she is mentally ill, unstable and simply does not have the cognitive or emotional capacity to engage in any way other than this nasty, obnoxious way; one that she is a histrionic drama queen and manipulator, who engages in such a way with people as that is usually the way she has managed in the past to browbeat and bully people into doing what she wants them to do, and the third, extremely remote possibility, that something horribly traumatic has recently happened to her that has caused her to behave in such a terrible inappropriate way. I’m going with option 1 or 2, as 3 is highly unlikely. In both of those options, the best thing you could possibly do is not engage. Let someone else handle it, someone who does not directly provoke her, and retreat somewhere where you are not violated in such a way.

I’m curious, did your principal ever check on you after the fact? Did he or she make sure you were okay?

A similar story…As a psychologist, I work in a large multidisciplinary medical practice. There was a patient, a very demanding, manipulative (and mentally ill) woman that was being fired from the practice for non-compliance and being abusive towards front-office staff, including medical assistants, receptionists, etc. She was never directly obnoxious (although quite demanding) to any of the mental health providers or physicians or nurses, but she was downright vicious and nasty to our front-desk personnel and our medical assistants. The practice manager had intervened twice, and another time, one of the physicians and I addressed the situations, consequently, determining at a staff meeting that we were going to dismiss this lady from the practice because her behavior had escalated from vicious and nasty to downright threatening (e.g. waiting in the parking lot to yell more verbal abuse at one of our receptionists). She had also been non-compliant with medical or mental health treatment. While none of us had any evidence that she was actively homicidal or suicidal at the time (and thusly, we could not apply the Tarasoff rule), we decided that the risk to our staff was too great to keep her on the patient roll, and that we would ask her to take her business elsewhere and provide her with appropriate referrals (as per the letter of the law – we consulted various ethical regulations for our professions and spoke to an attorney). She was sent a termination letter in the mail. She burst into the office, obviously intoxicated on some substance and proceeded to hurl more verbal abuse in the waiting room. At that point, for the safety of the rest of our patients and staff, we quickly emptied out the office, contacted the police and had her removed from the premises and taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. At no time was anyone left alone with her, and at no time were the people that she had specifically targeted (two receptionists and a medical assistant) left to face her directly. Unfortunately, sometimes, these things happen, and it’s best to deal with them swiftly and promptly. (BTW, the people that she had been so vicious towards were sent home for the rest of the day, as the experience left them reeling).

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cdubz April 10, 2014 at 8:15 am

The waiting room, in full view of other people, was not the place to speak up for yourself. You just let the drama queen finish her tantrum, then later, in a private setting, talk to the principal about what happened. It sounds like the principal is pretty much on your side though and recognizes this parent is a loon. Unless you get written up for some reason, I wouldn’t make a big stink about it.

Oh, and regarding your first encounter with the woman: it’s not a big deal. There were no other people around, you did nothing wrong. Even if you did do something wrong, the correct response on her part is “I would prefer not to talk about it out here. Can we go to your office?” She sounds like she was just looking for an excuse to go off on someone and you were a convenient target.

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Cecilia April 10, 2014 at 8:29 am

100% agree with admin. Remain calm (which is hard to do when someone is yelling & shrieking and it is directed at you) and people will know that she is acting/being unreasonable.

I used to work in the office of the local school system and now I work the administrative offices of a tourist attraction but interact with customers, on the phone and at the facility, on a daily basis. I would take working with the public over working with parents in a *school* setting everyday. Not all parents are bad, some are absolutely wonderful, but… I have personally witnessed some of the most atrocious behavior ever. Screaming, swearing, destruction of property, threats of bodily harm, homicide, etc. One mother spent five plus minutes yelling because the lunchroom ran out of her daughter’s favorite ice cream, going so far as to accuse the school staff of buying and hiding them all just so her daughter would not get one.

I have children and would do anything to make sure they are safe and well-treated but screaming at the school staff generally accomplishes nothing but giving you the reputation of being a b*tch, makes people want to avoid you and not help you. I think the woman in the story would have found something to be offended about, no matter what.

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PM April 10, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Re: the ice cream “thievery”

Staff at the school where my friend taught were treated to screaming and threats from a mother who claimed that she had come to the school the previous day as it was her daughter’s birthday and brought dozens of cupcakes for her daughter to share with her class. But the cupcakes never made it to the class. She ranted and raved at how the “fat b——s” in the front office must have stolen the delicious specialty cupcakes the mother bought at a gourmet bakery and eaten them all themselves!

The problem was that, due to school regulations, there is always an adult posted at the front desk of the school and no one on duty the day before remembered the mom coming in with cupcakes. But she ranted and screamed and insisted that she had brought the (curse word) cupcakes and the “fat b—-s” in the front office better pony up the $75 the cupcakes cost, go to the bakery in question, buy replacements and take them to her daughter’s class IMMEDIATELY.

Finally, the principal took her into the office, sat down and said, “You never bought the cupcakes, did you?”

After some hemming and hawing, it turned out that Mom had indeed, promised to buy the fancy cupcakes for her daughter, but for whatever reason, didn’t. And when her daughter came home, very upset that her birthday cupcakes never materialized, the mom told her that she’d brought the treats to the school and the staff must have eaten them. She figured if she was loud and rude enough, the staff would replace the “stolen” cupcakes just to get rid of her.

So yeah, sometimes, people think the louder and more abusive they are, they less likely you’ll be to question their story.

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Mouse April 10, 2014 at 8:30 am

I trust the OP told the principal exactly what happened, so the principal realized that the OP did nothing wrong. OP, please don’t beat yourself up. You weren’t an “unthinking twit,” so don’t be hard on yourself. This parent sounds like an irrational loony tune.

I realize that this is a situation where you would be so taken aback at this parent’s response that you’d be at a loss for words. That’s natural. Most people would realize you did not ask a personal question and would respond appropriately. (Example: “I’ve recently remarried and taken my new husband’s surname.”) If this lady flew off the handle, remember: It’s. Not. Your. Fault. Don’t sweat it.

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MyFamily April 10, 2014 at 8:31 am

You did nothing wrong. Honestly, I don’t even see how the question is that personal. A simple yes or no was all that was required of her, and identifying her new last name. You weren’t demanding any details on why she changed her name, you were doing your job.

The 2nd experience was made worse by your supervisor just allowing it to happen. She must work with distraught parents and students regularly and should know how to calm a tense situation, which includes not allowing someone to make a scene that disrupts others. You didn’t mention it but did your principal ever follow-up with you about what happened?

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WMK April 10, 2014 at 8:33 am

I agree with the Admin. You never engage with these type of people or if you do, then you remain calm while they look batsh-t crazy.

Letting the principal handle her was the right call. Then, if you are asked what she’s talking about, you can explain what happened. I still don’t think you did anything wrong in the first meeting with this parent. She should not have flown off the handle like that.

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AMC April 10, 2014 at 8:34 am

Admin is right. By staying calm and saying nothing, you let the woman dig her own grave. I don’t see that you did anything wrong. I don’t think you were unreasonable to ask about the name change. It sounds like the woman completely overreacted. Given her irrational behavior, I feel like there may be more to this story, but then again I’ve worked with the public too, and I know there are just some people who will look for any excuse to take their anger and frustrations out on others. You handled yourself just fine, OP.

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abf April 10, 2014 at 8:51 am

I had a similar experience while working for a funeral home. A lady came in to the office one day and requested some funeral record information for geneology research. She gave me a list of about 8-10 names she was looking for. It was a slow afternoon so I had the time to look while she waited. I tried making small talk with her because she seemed a bit nervous. I thougtht it was because maybe funeral homes scarred her or something. I just tried to be friendly. After I had researched about half of the names and had not found a funeral record for them, she abruptly stood up announced she had to go. I took her contact information and told her I would continue the search and would contact her if I found any of the records. A week or so later, she came back to the office and was mad. She wanted to know why I had lied to her. She had found a memorial card for one of the names I didn’t find. And it clearly showed that the funeral had been handled by our funeral home. However, it wasn’t the same exact name as she had given me. About that time, my boss (the owner of the FH) walked into the office and she immediatley began to tell him how sorry of an employee I was. She even mocked me from the previous visit when I was trying to be friendly with her. She made me out to be a dingy stupid secretary. I was heart broken. When she left I was in tears. And bless my boss’s heart, he said “Don’t worry. I’m not mad at you.” He recognized who she was and knew her background. Come to find out, one of the names she was looking for was a well to do aunt of hers whom she had been in control of her money. However, adult protective services had been called in and the aunt and her financial assets had been removed from this lady’s care. He informed me that this lady was most likely trying to find a way to get back in touch with the aunt, as she had a pre-arranged funeral policy with the funeral home and she knew we would have current contact information for the aunt.

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PWH April 10, 2014 at 8:59 am

I would have to say cooler heads prevail. You acted appropriately because this woman is clearly a drama queen (or drama lama as someone in another thread called someone :)) as Admin mentioned. As long as your principal supports you and you continue in your position, despite the parent’s demands that you be fired, everything should be fine. In all likelihood, you probably won’t see her again (finger’s crossed). Kudos to you for not losing your temper. Given your position, I also think the question you asked about the name discrepancy was more than warranted.

At a previous job I had one memorable experience with a customer/member of the public. I worked the summer at a city-owned event space. We held a high-profile dog show every year and the various participants were able to camp onsite as well. Since we had limited space and the event was quite popular, we had strict policies about cancellations. We had a waiting list and when someone cancelled, their spot was opened up to someone on the list. They were not able to give the spot away to someone of their choosing. Closer to the event we called each person to confirm their reservation. One of the people I called had decided he was not going to attend, but had given his spot to a friend. I politely explained our policies and that we could add the friend to the waiting list, but would have to offer his spot to someone who was already on the waiting list. He was understandably upset, but instead of talking through it calmly, he decided to erupt (I had planned to see if if I could do something to help out his friend, but his reaction was so shocking that I never got to that part). He turned to yelling, so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear and using all sorts of vulgar language. My colleague, who was sitting several feet away from me, was shocked at the language he was using as she could clearly hear every word he said as well. I tried to calm him down, but in the end said “I’m sorry sir, I can’t talk to you if you are going to speak like that. If you would like to call back once you’ve calmed down, we can discuss this further, but right now I am going to have to hang up.” And then I did. In the end we never heard from him again, and the friend he was going to give his spot to never showed up either.

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Basketcase April 14, 2014 at 1:14 am

I did similar when I was a receptionist.
Got an abusive phone call, and I gave the caller fair warning – “Sir, I will not continue to speak with you if you continue to be abusive”. “Please sir, stop swearing at me”. “Sir, if you swear at me one more time, I will hang up on you”. He swore again, I hung up. I got a round of applause from my colleagues who had overheard my end of the conversation and thought it was awesome that I stayed calm and had the balls to follow through.
He never rang back.

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Wild Irish Rose April 10, 2014 at 9:14 am

At the earliest opportunity, I would confer privately with the principal in her office. I would explain exactly what happened the first time around with this woman, and ask for guidance on how to handle something like that in the future. When the parent handed you two documents with different names on them, she should have explained at that time why the names differed; you were not out of line in asking why they were different, especially since she clearly expected you to enter the information into your database. I don’t think you did anything wrong, but I would definitely speak with the principal and devise a way to handle unpleasant and obnoxious parents in the future, because you will encounter them.

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Phoenix April 10, 2014 at 9:21 am

Yeah, people like that woman are usually shameless harpies that think that causing a scene will either bully people into helping her, or attract other people into helping with the bullying. Eitherway, it only shows people like her have the mentality of a 3 year old that they never truly grew out of and they’rerather pitiful.

Still, where is security in all of this. I would have called them in case things escalated.

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EllenS April 10, 2014 at 9:49 am

Agree w/Admin, OP you did exactly right by doing nothing. This woman was behaving in a completely unhinged manner and surely your supervisor is intelligent enough to see that.
If your supervisor took anything she said seriously, he or she would have spoken to you about it afterwards. Since you do not mention being reprimanded or dismissed in relation to this incident, I assume your principal sent you from the room in order to protect you from having to hear the ranting, calmed the parent, and put the incident aside.
If you are still concerned about your standing with your supervisor and whether he/she thinks you did the right thing, you should ask for feedback. If you had done wrong you would have heard about it by now.

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Meegs April 10, 2014 at 11:25 am

The lady doth protest too much, me thinks! Her over-the-top behavior not once, but twice, to a simple question about her name makes me thing there was something funny going on.

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Cat April 10, 2014 at 11:41 am

I worked both as a teacher and a couselor in high schools/adult centers for thirty-five years. First rule, when dealing with a person like this, and there are many, tell the principal exactly what happened and show him/her what you found. Fore-warned is fore-armed.
Second rule, when caught doing something dishonest, yelling and storming out works well for the person, not so well for the office worker who has to stand there and take it. Remain calm and repeat the question,” Why do you find this upsetting and why are the names different?”
People lie. I found a high school that was entering false courses and grades for their students under our school’s information. They were increasing their graduation rate by giving seniors grades they had never earned. I told my principal, she reported it, and it got swept under the rug.
Students lie. We had a lad who convinced his mother that the teacher would move to a different classroom for his afternoon class (after school) and that was why he never attended.
He tried it on me one day. “I came to see you to find out where my class was, but you were at dinner so I could not go.” I said, “Your class starts at 3 pm. I go to dinner at 5:30. Why did you wait for two and a half hours to look for your class?” No answer.
You did nothing wrong. Next time let your principal know about this woman so he/she will know what to expect.

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lakey April 10, 2014 at 11:43 am

I do think that your principal should have had a follow up talk with you to reassure you to get your side, and to reassure you.

Outbursts at school aren’t uncommon, because parents get very emotional about their kids. I know a principal at an elementary school who was screeched at and threatened to the point where police had to be called.

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cathy April 10, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Your question seems perfectly reasonable in the circumstances. I don’t have a clue why she would react that way. Seems like it would be wise for your supervisor to take her aside and find out why she’s overreacting so ridiculously. And I’d ask for feedback also – just to protect your interests. But I can’t see how your supervisor could think you did anything wrong here. Even if you had asked the same question with people in the room, it wasn’t, IMO, a personal question, just a factual one, and you were simply doing your job. Doesn’t make sense to reprimand you and certainly doesn’t make sense to fire someone for that!

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Ashley April 10, 2014 at 1:43 pm

I don’t see anything wrong with your question. It is important that the info matches, and if it doesn’t there should be a documented reason for it so it doesn’t come up every single time someone needs to talk to that person.

I also believe your supervisor didn’t stand up for you because he knew if he started arguing with this woman she’d continue shrieking and carrying on, rather than having the whole situation end whenever it did. I’d also imagine if you were going to be reprimanded or punished in any way, it would have happened by now or immediately following the incident. Given that it sounds like you are still employed and that there was no punishment, I’d say nothing wrong happened on your part.

Reminds me of when I used to work in retail, at an office supply store. I’m sort of known for being polite to a fault with customers and being able to keep calm and have a straight face no matter what they are talking about. As a result, I often found myself working behind the customer service desk, where there was also a cash register to check people out at. So one day, there I was, behind the counter, doing my thing. I was in a super good mood and it was a slower day so I was even beyond my normal level of customer service. Then the scary lady came in. She walked around the store picking up what she wanted to purchase, quite rudely denied any offers of help she was given, and then made her way up to my counter. I forget EXACTLY how the conversation went but I handed her her change, and said something to the effect of “Here is your change” with a polite and genuine smile on my face, then I turned to grab her receipt which had just finished printing. I turned to face her again and she starts SCREAMING at me “Why didn’t you say thank you when you handed me my change?” She honestly yelled at me for a good five minutes straight all because I didn’t say thank you when I handed her her change. She threatened a multitude of things like telling her friends not to shop there and reporting me to the CEO of the company, and demanded my full name so she could report me and get me fired. One of the store managers was near by the whole time and told me over our radios that I did NOT have to give my full name. Finally the lady left and the manager came over and confirmed that I had done nothing wrong, and apologized for not stepping in, he just knew if he had, she would have continued screaming even longer. Even customers who overhead the transaction agreed that I had not said or done anything wrong. Some people just like to yell because they think it makes them right.

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msdani313 April 10, 2014 at 2:04 pm

OP…now worries! You did nothing wrong!
I work in an inner city high school and during the summer I spent most of my days in the main office due to renovations in my office. There was screaming, cussing, paper throwing and other behavioral oddities from various adults. Because people would knock the papers off the front counter when they got upset the clerk and I decided to clear the counter. We had a woman come in and demand that we give her a job and state that she had more experience because she was older than my perceived age even after I explained that I am a social worker. (Im 27 but have been mistaken for 19) We had a man come in and demand bus cards. Another woman who said we printed state IDs and she was not leaving until we gave her one. Surprisingly none of the crazies were students. My favorite was the man who came in everyday demanding free food because we provided food to children in the neighborhood.

Best advice everyone can follow DON’T ENGAGE THE CRAZIES!!!

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Rebecca April 10, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Sounds like exactly the same woman I dealt with when I worked at a post office outlet. My crime? I asked for two pieces of ID and a signature to collect a piece of registered mail. She’d left her ID in the car, and yes, I needed her to go get it. She THREW the cards at me and when I asked for her signature she flipped entirely. I was polite the whole time, never nasty. But she just about had me in a quivering heap by the time she left.

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ddwwylm April 10, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Like PP, i agree with the others that you did not do anything wrong. I wouldn’t be so hard on your principal either – he or she might have been just as shocked as you and not known how to handle it at first. Especially since they seemed to have walked into the scene mid rant, it may have taken a second to understand what was going on before they decided to dismiss you out of the line of fire.
I actually don’t think the mother was defensive about her personal information or name change. Was this a new enrollment at the school? I would be highly suspicious that the mom was using someone elses utility bill in order to enroll at the school and the yelling was a defensive move to keep you from questioning further.
I’ve been in the situation before with a name change at the bank trying to close one of my accts that I had opened before marrying and changing my name. I just clearly stated to the teller that I had changed my name due to marriage – I had the proper documentation. the only time I got a little annoyed was when she kept insisting that the signatures didn’t match – it’s a completly different last name, they’re not going to match, LOL.

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The Elf April 11, 2014 at 7:06 am

I had the same problem when I first married. All my previous documentation was in my old name, so for a while I brought my marriage certificate with me to do things like open accounts or renew my license. Then, a few years later, I had to redo documentation at my bank because my signature had changed. When I opened the account, my name was new and I was careful in signing it. Years later I had gotten lazy and just scrawled it out like I used to do with my old name.

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ddwwylm April 14, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Yes, that was probably part of the problem as well. I had opened the acct when I was 18 or 19, a fresh young adult prodly and carefully signing my name. By the time I closed it, I was in my 30s and had been signing my name multiple times daily at work and had uh – streamlines the process, LOL. Not to mention I was too lazy to figure out how to incorporate my married name nicely into my signature so the whole thing got just a bit messier.

I just thought it was funny because even if I took my time and tried to neatly replicate my youthful signature, it was still going to be a different name – the girl really didn’t seem to get that part.

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JO April 10, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I agree with admin as well. By not engaging, you give her no ammunition for future assaults. And I expect that the principal was doing the same by not coming to your defense; the woman would only have escalated further. By sending you to your office, the principal was probably trying to protect you from further upset. You asked a perfectly reasonable question, and personally I suspect that she blew up the first time because you caught her trying to pull the wool over your eyes, and the second because she was about to try again, but when she saw you expected you would call her out on it. I also am interested in whether the principal spoke to you afterward. Please do post an update if you can

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Ellie April 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm

I recently started a new job in local government, and one of my responsibilities is answering the phones. 99% of the people calling in are great. Being a new employee I don’t always know the answer to their questions, but mostly they are understanding and polite if I have to put them on hold for a minute while I check on the correct course of action with my supervisor.

I’ve had a handle of people though, who WILL NOT accept anything but an answer to their problems and right at this very moment. No they do not want to be put on hold, no they don’t want to speak with anyone except whoever is at the very top, and shame on my for working for our incompetent government because never in a million years would they do that! #$%$ this, @$%#$ that…

It definitely shook me up the first couple of times I had these abusive callers. I’m still not comfortable with it, but I’m learning that some people are just plain angry and attention-seeking, and they’ll take it out on whoever is in their way. All we can do is do they best we can and not take it personally!

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Marozia April 10, 2014 at 9:21 pm

To me, the question about this woman’s name was not out of line. And even if it was, this person had no right to react to OP by screeching at her.
A simple ‘I don’t wish to discuss it in public right now’ would’ve been sufficient, then taken her to a room to confirm the change of name. If this parent reacts the same way in another department (who may not be so understanding) she may be arrested for disturbing the peace.

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MichelleP April 11, 2014 at 12:45 am

Ahh, the joys of working with the public. I’ve worked fast food, retail, banking and in hotels and it never gets better. Don’t engage the crazy. You and your supervisor handled it fine.

Some of my favorites from retail hell: Customer screaming at the top of her lungs at me because her bank account was overdrawn. No, it wasn’t us.

Man throwing food across the counter at my head because we’d gotten his order wrong. No, it wasn’t us.

Hotel guest throwing a fit and storming out when I couldn’t tell her when the storm outside was going to end, or how far she had to drive to get away from it. Sorry, crystal ball is in the shop.

Personal favorite: when I was 18 I worked at Mcdonald’s. We ordered face to face; the intercoms were at other stores but our owner liked for us to talk to the customers face to face. This guy pulled up and was so upset that he couldn’t see the menu while he was ordering. I just stood there and let him rant and rave. Didn’t say a word, just looked straight ahead. These days I would have just shut the window, but I didn’t know how to handle that situation at that time. I finally said politely, “Sir, would you please not talk like that?” He SPIT IN MY FACE and drove away. It took me a few seconds to realize that it had actually happened. My manager thought it was hilarious; he made jokes about it. I quit not long after.

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Cecilia April 11, 2014 at 8:33 am

I spoke to a woman yesterday (4/3/14) who yelled at me because she was lost and wanted me to tell her how to get to my facility. This is how the conversation went:

Me: ” Good morning, (name of company), how may I help you?”
Lady: ” I am trying to get to where you are located, my GPS is sending me in circles and I want you to tell me how to get there right now!”
Me: “I’m so sorry you are having trouble finding us. I can either give you an alternate address to try for your GPS or if you will tell me the name of the road you are on, I will give you directions.”
Lady: “I don’t know what road I’m on! I’m lost, duh! I don’t want an alternate address! I want you to tell how to get there right now!”
Me: “Ma’am, in order to get you here, I need to know where you are. Is there a landmark or cross street you can see? ”
Lady: “No. How many f’ing time do I have to tell you, I’M LOST!”
Me: “Ma’am if you cannot tell me what road you are on, I can not tell you how to get here because I do not know where you are. Do you see a store close by? If they can tell you the name of the road, then I can tell you how to get here. Or maybe the name of the last road the GPS had you turn on?”
Lady: “Why do they let dumb people like you answer the phone?! I threw the d*mned GPS out the window and I’m not walking into a store and asking what road I’m on! Get me there, NOW!”
Me: “Ma’am, if you cannot tell me what road you are on or a landmark, there is nothing else I can do to help you.”
Lady: “(Curse words)”, slams phone down.

I still don’t understand why she thought I could tell her how to get here with no starting point for directions. Teleportation, maybe?

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Kate April 11, 2014 at 6:32 am

I’m a teacher and while I’ve only been teaching for a term, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about dealing with parent confrontations from my (limited) experience as well as advice from others.
Step one: inform your boss (in your case, the principal) of any incident, no matter if nothing comes of it. Even something like “I called the Smith family about their son’s enrolment and Mrs Smith made a snide comment about X teacher”. That way, everyone is aware of it and you don’t look bad if the person then comes in and makes a fuss in front of your principal.
Step two, document everything. Every single time I have a ‘difficult’ conversation with a parent, I write down everything I’m going to say beforehand, run it by a senior teacher, then make notes during the conversation. Only once has a conversation I thought would be tough actually lived up to my fears, but I make sure everything is well documented to cover my own backside should anything arise in the future. I also used to work in retail, and actually worked in the complaints department of one business, but parent encounters are by far the most intimidating encounters I’ve ever had. I think it’s best to avoid engaging, put everything in writing, and communicate everything.

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Yet Another Laura April 11, 2014 at 9:38 am

Former tech support for a computer retail here. I have loads of screaming customer stories. Two things I’ve learned:

1. If you interrupt a tirade, the screamer starts over and adds to the tirade.
2. The source of the anger is not something I could fix. I can repair your computer, but not the 45 minute wait or the warranty policy. And I couldn’t roll back the clock and let you open the box to set up the computer before the warranty ran out.

You did fine, and your boss was letting this woman scream herself out and got you out of the fray. Both are good ways to handle it. If you have concerns, talk to your boss about the incident. I’d bet the bank he’ll be on your side completely.

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Ted April 11, 2014 at 9:39 am

As others mentioned, you asked a perfectly reasonable question WITHIN the scope and course of your duties. What if the info you were asked to copy was fraudulent?

Bottom line, NO ONE has the right to abuse you in any way, shape or form. You handled this well.

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Ted April 11, 2014 at 9:43 am

I also wanted to add, OP that my job entails handling legal documents. If names don’t match and/or it doesn’t “seem” right..I take it to a supervisor. If someone wants to get upset, they will have to deal with security.

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hakayama April 11, 2014 at 6:11 pm

I just love your solution to potentially hazardous situations. It is a good idea to give the dwellers of rarified regions a bit of a reminder of the daily grind. Given that dissatisfied customers often insist on seeing “the supervisor”, you might as well save them the trouble of asking.

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kingsrings April 11, 2014 at 1:02 pm

I’m applying for office/clerical positions at schools right now, and this thread is making me dread possibly having to work these jobs! I would so hate to deal with the situations I’ve heard about and also read about on here. I’ve also heard many parental horror stories from school employees. It’s unbelievable to me that any parent would even think to act that way. After all, it’s reflection of them and their parenting – why would they want to give themselves a bad reputation like that? It seems like this is a common problem in every child-related job. Even when I worked retail, you wouldn’t believe how nuts some parents go over their child having a certain clothing item. And this is just clothing! All parents need to do a reality check first before they start to get upset about something and remember to keep their cool.

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Ashley April 11, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Don’t be afraid. I’ve worked in several different places since I’ve been working, all ultimately coming back to customer service, and dealing with people constantly. WAY WAY WAY more of the customers are completely normal polite people, so when a bad customer turns up it stands out more. I left a comment earlier about a customer I had, and yeah she sucked, but the very next day I had a customer who wound up calling the head office to say good things about me, and I got a bonus. So while their is bad in just about every customer service type job out there, there’s plenty of good too.

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Kali April 11, 2014 at 2:50 pm

We had a similar situation at work today. I work in a call centre for a credit card company, and a man started screaming at me because his card was blocked. It was blocked by our fraud team for suspected fraud, and we couldn’t unblock it without speaking to them first. I assume you were just asking about her name change as part of a similar identity check, which is put in place for the good of everyone but fraudsters. If she has a problem with that, she’s at fault.

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Princess Ida April 11, 2014 at 7:23 pm

You did nothing wrong, and I would add to those who have already commented to say document what happened for your own protection.

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