Organizational Characteristics and Employee Excuse Making: Passing the Buck For Failed Service Encounters

ABSTRACT - When a service failure occurs customers will frequently look to front- line employees to seek redress or explanations. The manner in which these employees respond could have a significant impact on the customer's satisfaction and future patronage behavior. This paper looks at the response of employees to customer's expressions of dissatisfaction in the context of excuse theory. Then, organizational characteristics are relied upon to suggest when conditions for one particular type of excuse behavior, deflection, is most likely to occur.


Donna J. Hill, Robert Baer, and Rustan Kosenko (1992) ,"Organizational Characteristics and Employee Excuse Making: Passing the Buck For Failed Service Encounters", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 673-678.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 673-678


Donna J. Hill, Bradley University

Robert Baer, Bradley University

Rustan Kosenko, Bradley University


When a service failure occurs customers will frequently look to front- line employees to seek redress or explanations. The manner in which these employees respond could have a significant impact on the customer's satisfaction and future patronage behavior. This paper looks at the response of employees to customer's expressions of dissatisfaction in the context of excuse theory. Then, organizational characteristics are relied upon to suggest when conditions for one particular type of excuse behavior, deflection, is most likely to occur.


Managing employees' reactions to customer's complaints is especially important in the services context where there may be not only a large number of product failures but where it becomes increasingly difficult to arrive at attributions for these failures (Adam, Hershaurer and Ruch 1981). Since the production of most services entails some interaction between the service provider and the customer, there is increased difficulty in managing the quality of the outcome (Ziethaml, Parasurman and Berry 1985). Furthermore, people engaged in many services work in environments where many factors contribute to the service outcome. Since there are many ways to generate the service output, and there is a propensity for people to make mistakes, it is not unreasonable to expect a large number of errors in the production of services. When a service fails or an unsatisfying experience occurs, customers frequently complain to frontline employees. The manner in which the employee handles resulting customer's concerns could have a significant impact on customer impressions of the service and concomitantly, the firm itself (Booms and Nyquist 1981; Gronroos 1982; Schneider and Bowen 1985).

The employee may react by "passing the buck" back to the customer, other members of the firm, or even to outside forces. In this paper we (1) introduce excuse theory, (2) analyze organizational characteristics which are conducive to employee excuse making, and (3) volunteer propositions regarding organizational variables that are likely to forewarn the occurrence of employee excuse making.


When a customer voices a complaint to an employee, the employee can respond in at least one of three ways. First, the employee may volunteer to make restitution or correct the error. This is more likely to occur if a correctable error can be identified, such as undercooked meat in a restaurant. Second, the employee may ignore the complaint, by either refusing to obtain complete information, denying that any problem exists or by negating the customer's right to restitution (e.g., an auto mechanic who tells a customer that nothing is wrong with the squeaky car). Third, the employee may provide an excuse in an attempt to explain or justify their behavior. Although marketers have extensively studied the first two options (e.g., Singh 1988; 1990), they have devoted much less attention to employee excuse- making.

Recently, however, the psychology literature has shown an interest in the topic of excuse making (Kernis and Grannemann 1990; Shaver 1975; Shaver and Drown 1986; Snyder 1985; Snyder, Higgins and Stucky 1983; Snyder and Higgins 1988; Higgins and Snyder 1991; Teneen and Affleck 1990). The most comprehensive excuse theory has been presented by Snyder et al. (1983). Revised recently (Higgins and Snyder 1991), they define excuse making as "the motivated process of (a) diminishing the perceived negativity of esteem threatening outcomes and (b) shifting the causal attribution for negative outcomes from sources more central to the person's sense of self to sources that are relatively less central" (p. 85). Their writings show that people have an entire repertoire of excuse-making strategies that they may invoke when acts or outcomes reflect poorly on them. In this paper we examine one prevalent type of excuse--the tendency to avoid blame by denying one's own responsibility. In its simplest form, this type of excuse may merely entail a "I did not do it". However, this excuse strategy can be greatly enhanced by pointing the finger at another possible culprit as the cause of the problem, that is, by shifting responsibility toward some other potential cause. We have termed this phenomenon "deflection," more commonly known as "passing the buck". We define deflection as the motivated process of shifting responsibility for a bad act or outcome away from oneself toward another source. This is a major theme of excuse theory and is also predominant in Snyder, Stephan's, Rosenfeild's (1978) theory of attributional egotism as well as Shaver's (1975) theory of defensive attribution. These works indicate that when people are faced with what others would consider a negative appraisal of their character or abilities, they will attribute the failure not to their own shortcomings--as would objective observers--but to factors beyond themselves. In this paper, we examine deflection in the service encounter.

The basic motivational process in excuse making is one of seeking distance from negative acts or outcomes. Higgins and Snyder (1991) describe two appraisals which are made whenever one is confronted with negative information that is discrepant from their current view of themself: (1) a linkage-to-act appraisal representing the degree to which the individual perceives him or herself to be linked (from no linkage to total linkage) to a particular act or outcome and (2) a valence-of-act appraisal representing the individual's qualitative assessment of the positiveness of the act or outcome (from positive to negative). Excuse making motives are stimulated whenever an individual perceives him or herself to be linked to an act or outcome that is perceived negatively. Of the multitude of excuses possible, all of them serve the function of either reducing the perceived negativity of the event or reducing the individual's perceived linkage to the act. Deflection serves this latter function. Individuals who attempt to "pass the buck" are seeking to minimize the extent to which they are perceived as linked to the negative event. Employees can seek to divert responsibility to a number of possible sources including the customer, one's supervisor, company policies or even unavoidable external circumstances.

Excuses provide a useful role in our society (Higgins and Snyder 1991). If honored (accepted) by the customer, they have the ability to shore up a fractured situation. Excuses can prevent conflicts from arising by verbally bridging the gap between promise and performance, between action and expectation (Scott and Lyman 1968) and thus, they can mitigate consumer displeasure over a service encounter that does not meet expectations. If the excuse is honored, we may say that it was efficacious and that equilibrium was restored: An honored excuse will restore the status quo ante. To the extent that an excuse is honored, ramifications exist for post-purchase attitudes, future complaining behavior and repatronage activities. For example, Bitner (1990) has shown that when an employee places the blame on something or someone other than him or herself or the firm, that excuse is likely to lead the customer to believe that the firm had less control over the failure than when the employee either implicates themself or the firm. Other investigators (Folkes 1984a, 1984b; Folkes, Koletsky and Graham 1988; Krishnan and Valle 1979) confirm that the type of excuse or explanation offered will affect customer perceptions of and reactions to the situation.

Although sometimes useful, deflection can also be harmful to the organization. What sometimes arises is a massive game of finger pointing in which no one takes responsibility for a poor service outcome. "Passing the buck" may be detrimental to the organization for at least three reasons: (1) customers may become irritated by a system that does not take responsibility for itself, (2) although individual employees may succeed in deflecting responsibility from themselves, responsibility may simply be diverted to another part of the organization, resulting in no mitigation of organizational responsibility in the eyes of the consumer, and (3) organizations or individual employees who are involved in buck passing may fail to capitalize on a valuable source of consumer information. Systematic problems may go unnoticed, problems go unsolved, and customers go unserviced. Customers should be encouraged to complain so that problems can be addressed and corrective action taken (Sellers 1989).

It is the major contention of our paper that rather than allowing employees to haphazardly (inconsistently) handle complaints in their own manner, they should be trained to handle complaints in a systematic manner; one detailed, disseminated and controlled by the firm. As a result, management should be cognizant of the excuse making activities of their employees and of the organizational variables which are most conducive to such behavior. By effectively managing their employee's excuse behavior, firms are more likely to influence the outcome of the complaint process. The ultimate objective of managing employee excuse making activity is not for the firm to deny responsibility for the service failure or for the firm to avoid correcting the mistake but, rather to handle the customer's complaint in such a manner as to reduce customers' initial dissatisfaction and reestablish confidence in their perceptions of quality. These, in turn, should have positive word-of-mouth communications and repatronage behavior ramifications.


Excuses are not necessarily false. They do, however, involve an interpretation of the events that led to a specific outcome. When there are few objective yardsticks regarding the "truth" of varying explanations of events and several alternative explanations may equally fit, then it is in this gray area that excuses flourish (Mehlman and Snyder 1985). Service organizations, to a varying degree, present conditions that are in this gray area. That is, some service firms have characteristics which provide ample opportunities for employee deflection.

Front line employees should be able to deflect to the extent that their own contribution to the service failure is obscure. Obscurity can occur when there is more than one possible cause for a bad outcome and to the extent to which the cause of the bad outcome stemmed from ambiguous criteria or standards. The discounting principle (Kelley 1971) states that when there is more than one plausible cause for an outcome, the attribution to any one of those causes will be weaker than if one of those causes stands alone. Organizations are often structured such that there are potentially more than one cause for service failures. This makes organizations structurally evasive when it comes to responsibility taking (Snyder et al. 1983; Ogilvey 1977). Responsibility in organizations becomes elusive to the degree which (1) more than one factor (people or variables) was involved in causing the act or outcome, (2) any factor could have plausibly contributed to causing the negative event, and (3) the task and roles to be performed or the performance standards were structurally ambiguous to begin with. Structural evasiveness, in turn, should provide grounds that encourage deflection activity. In the next section we relate specific service and organizational characteristics to deflection behavior. Although it is recognized that many of these variables are inter-related, they will each be discussed separately.

Degree of Intangibility

The intangibility of services refers to both the absence of a physical referent as well as to the difficulty of mentally grasping the qualities or characteristics of the service. This results in what Bowen and Jones (1986) refer to as performance ambiguity (i.e., the difficulty in judging how well the service was performed as well as to the subjectivity of many of the performance standards). Performance ambiguity makes it difficult to measure the performance of different parties in the exchange and to determine the role that various factors played in contributing to the final outcome. Thus, performance ambiguity makes it difficult to establish the cause-effect relationship that produced the service. Consequently, to the degree that a service is dominated by abstract, intangible attributes, or to the degree that the tangible attributes are not easily evaluated, the employee may experience difficulty in assessing attributions for the failure or may hold an attribution only tentatively. Intangibility causes doubt regarding the number of plausible explanations towards which blame may be attributed by the employee and provides greater opportunity for employees to shift blame.

P1: Employee deflection activity will vary positively with the intangibility of the service attributes.

Degree of Inseparability

Inseparability refers to the simultaneous production and consumption of services. While the degree of inseparability may be determined by the type of service, it can also be controlled by management (Chase 1978; Lovelock 1983). In services characterized by a high degree of inseparability, there is considerable overlap between the core service operations and customer contact. Unlike with goods where the customer's main form of participation is the purchase act itself, with services the customer may also play a role in the service production. This role may be minute such as in situations in which the contact personnel simply acts as an intermediary between the customer and the core service provider, or it can be quite extensive such as when the contact personnel is actually the core service provider and when consumption and production of the service occur simultaneously, e.g., health and beauty care. In many services characterized by a high degree of inseparability, feedback from the customer determines the selection, combination and order of service delivery, thus furthering the customer's involvement in the service production. To the degree that the customer participates in the service process (inseparability), then he or she becomes a plausible source of blame should the service performance fall short of expectations. A high degree of inseparability provides opportunities for the employee to shift blame toward the customer.

P2: Employee deflection should be positively related to the degree of service inseparability.

Degree of Complexity

The complexity of a service is defined by the number and the intricacy of the steps required to perform it (Shostack 1987). According to Thompson (1967), the most long-linked services are those that are designed such that the customer contact personnel and the core service operations are totally separate from one another. This type of service usually involves a series of independent and discrete steps that can be performed by different intermediaries. For example, a customer's purchase of customized home decorating products is likely to entail a long delivery system that may include a salesperson, contractor, decorator and installer. The dissatisfied customer is likely to complain first to the last link in the chain. However, in a series of deflection strategies by the various workers involved, blame can be shifted from one source in the link to another, i.e., the installer blames the decorator who, in turn, blames someone else. In complex services such as this, many different people and factors contribute to the service outcome. Thus, service failure can be caused by a number of different variables, providing a large number of plausible explanations upon which the employee can rely.

P3: Employee deflection activity will vary positively with the complexity of the service.

Duration of The Service Delivery Process

The longer it takes for service delivery to be completed, the more likely it is that customers will require information on work in progress-- such as estimated completion dates, quality of on-going tasks, projected costs, and so forth. This increases the number of contacts as well as enhances the likelihood of an employee to engage in deflection activity. Moreover, the longer the duration of the service delivery then the more opportunities for mistakes or poor service to occur with a subsequent increase in plausible sources for the mistakes.

P4: Employee deflection activity will vary positively with the length of the service delivery process.

Role Conflict

The role attached to any position in an organization represents the set of behaviors and activities to be performed by the person occupying that position (Katz and Kahn 1978). The role is defined through the expectations, demands, and pressures communicated to employees by individuals (e.g., top managers, immediate supervisors, customers) who have a vested interest in the manner in which employees perform their job (Katz and Kahn 1978). One particularly relevant type of role conflict is the perceived clash between expectations of customers and expectations of the organization as understood by employees (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, and Rosenthal 1964; Rizzo, House, and Lirzman 1970). Because contact employees are the links between the company and the customer, they must satisfy the needs of both. Conflict can even occur over how problems are to be resolved. For example, several writers (Blau and Scott 1963; Bar-Yosef and Schild 1966; Katz and Danet 1973) have pointed out that organizations normally require universal and specific treatment of clients while the client expects the service-giver to consider their special case and to treat them as a whole person. Shamir (1980) has referred to this as "The Two Bosses Dilemma."

Role conflict may occur when employees are expected by customers to perform a service for a customer on time (deliver the pizza to the table within 15 minutes of ordering) and are also expected by management to collect money, clear tables, keep orders straight, etc. When a customer expresses dissatisfaction the employee may respond by shifting blame to other customers ("We are extremely busy tonight") or to "back-room" personnel ("The kitchen mixed up your order").

Role conflict can also be generated for employees through excessive paperwork or unnecessary internal roadblocks. For example, retail clerks who must complete numerous and time-consuming forms for each return or exchange no matter what the price or reason, may experience role conflict if other customers are waiting to be served. Complicating the issue is that the other customers in line may become irate and complain (which leads to a potential to engage in deflection behavior) and or leave the store. Additional conflict may also be generated by the reality that the clerk may be measured -- and rewarded--on the basis of selling achievements without regard to how well they handle a customer returning merchandise. Such situations are more likely to lead to increased usage of deflection strategies because the unclarity regarding the appropriate tasks to be performed permits the employee to divert responsibility by drawing attention to the fact that they were effectively fulfilling their other role. This shifts blame toward the sources of role conflict.

P5: Employee deflection activity will vary positively with the amount of role conflict.

Role Ambiguity

When employees do not have the information necessary to perform their jobs adequately, they experience role ambiguity (Katz and Kahn 1978; Walker, Churchill, and Ford 1977). Role ambiguity may increase deflection activity because the employee does not have a clear understanding of their own (or other parties to the service process) responsibility in affecting the service delivery. Thus, when service failure occurs, it is unclear with whom responsibility for the failure should be most directly linked. This may be especially true if other policies and procedures are in place which dictate or constrain behavior in such a way as to prevent causal resolution.

P6: Employee deflection activity will vary positively with the amount of role ambiguity experienced.

Span of Control

Span of control refers to the number of employees reporting to a single manager (Ouchi and Dowling 1974). The wider the span of control, the less potential there is for control over the employee and the greater the individual responsibility and initiative among employees' (Child 1984; Worthy 1950). Employees are more likely to use their own discretion in influencing blame with wide spans of control. Moreover, employees can evade responsibility to the extent that they are managed by a supervisor who must also direct many other employees.

P7: Employee deflection activity will vary positively with the size of the span of control in the organization.

In summary, it is hypothesized that organizational variables that encourage employees to evade responsibility exert a powerful force on employee excuse-making behavior. An organizational characteristic such as span of control can lead the employee to engage in excuse behavior that is detrimental to the firm and customer satisfaction. Organizational variables such as role conflict and role ambiguity can lead the employee to make excuses that lessen the blame on themselves but shift it to other sources in the firm. Several organizational variables that we have discussed are interrelated. Intangibility, duration of the service delivery process, and complexity of the service are all likely to influence role ambiguity. Likewise, wide spans of control can lead to more role ambiguity as well as role conflict (Chonko 1982). The interdependence of these variables will complicate this process by either magnifying or diluting the effects of these variables.


Excuses are a common part of our everyday lives. They appear in a wide variety of situations including the work environment and they can have a major impact on customer perceptions of service quality and satisfaction. If the customer honors the excuse, it is much more likely that the gap between what happened and what should have happened will be bridged. The excuse provides a causal explanation that if plausible, restores customer faith in the service. However, if the excuse is not honored, and then the employee and customer disagree about who or what is to blame, customer perceptions of service quality and customer dissatisfaction are likely to be impaired. Deflection behavior may be unethical if the excuse is false or misleading. Additionally, deflection behavior may result in the the loss of valuable information if the customer is dissuaded from pursuing their complaint. Thus, deflection behavior and its consequences should be of concern to marketers. We have argued that certain organizational characteristics should act like warning signs for potentially unmanaged deflection activity and should signal to the manager that steps should be taken to ensure that employee excuse-making is effectively managed. If the complaint process is to be strategically managed, then it becomes essential to know when excuse making is most likely to occur.

The theoretical framework advanced in this paper provides a rich environment for research. Obviously, empirical investigations of the propositions presented need to be conducted. Such investigations would necessarily involve a classification scheme of service industries that explicitly considered intangibility, inseparability, complexity, and duration of service delivery. Because inseparability is frequently a strategic variable, a central issue for managers centers around understanding the customer-employee interface and its management. The questions of how employees handle the service failure process and how the service firm can optimize the outcome should assume importance in the marketing process and represent important concerns for consumer behaviorists.

A second area to investigate is the impact of deflection activity on both the customer and the employee as it pertains to different deflection targets. Although this issue has been addressed previously (Bitner 1990), a full classification scheme of deflection targets has not been addressed. For example, what are the ramifications of deflecting vertically within the organization or externally to another agent? To what extent does the customer differentiate between the contact person and the other members of the firm and what are the ramifications of distinguishing between them? Clearly, employees frequently offer such excuses ("I'm sorry for the error. We're training a new clerk and it's his first day on the job," or "We subcontract that part of the job out and I have no control over what they do"). But should employees "pass the buck" and to what extent does such deflection activity moderate the resolution outcome for both the employee and the customer?

Other areas could be addressed as well. For instance, research in deflection activity could help managers determine the type of personnel selection and training programs which can lead to successful deflection outcomes, as well as the impact of successful/unsuccessful deflection activity on customer and employee retention. Other variables not directly discussed in this paper could also be investigated. For example, how does deflection activity differ between experienced and inexperienced employees or between part-time and full-time employees? What role does advertising play in this process? Finally, how does deflection activity impact the customer's and the employee's perception of service quality? In an increasingly complex and competitive environment further elaboration of the process occurring among the employee, the customer, and perceived service failure needs to be developed and their implications clearly outlined.


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Donna J. Hill, Bradley University
Robert Baer, Bradley University
Rustan Kosenko, Bradley University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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