Why sabotage customers who mistreat you? Activated hostility and subsequent devaluation of targets as a moral disengagement mechanism

Yu Shan Huang*, Rebecca L. Greenbaum, Julena M. Bonner, Cynthia S. Wang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

8 Scopus citations


We utilize the social intuitionist approach to moral judgment and moral disengagement theory to understand why and when employees sabotage customers. We contend that when customers mistreat employees (i.e., customer mistreatment), employees experience intuitive emotional reactions in the form of hostility, which automatically activates devaluation of targets, a specific facet of moral disengagement. In turn, employees become unencumbered by moral self-regulation and sabotage customers who mistreat them (i.e., customer-directed sabotage). We further argue that our serially mediated model is moderated by employees' perceptions of the organization's ethical climate. When ethical climates are perceived as being low, employees' hostile reactions toward misbehaving customers produce a positive relationship with devaluation of targets, and devaluation of targets results in a positive relationship with customer-directed sabotage. These positive relationships do not hold when ethical climate is perceived as being high. We test our theoretical model using a field sample of customer service employees and an experimental study to establish causality. Our results provide general support for our hypotheses. We discuss theoretical and practical implications and opportunities for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)495-510
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Applied Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019



  • Customer mistreatment
  • Customer-directed sabotage
  • Ethical climate
  • Hostility
  • Moral disengagement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology

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