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RespectWork - Developing mutual respect in customer interactions to improve work and service quality

Keywords: labour policy, service work, customers / consumers

Project duration: 01.05.2020-30.04.2023

Written in red in English with a hashtag in front "RespectWork".
Lettering Federal Ministry of Education and Research, eagle and black, red, golden stripe

Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), European Union (EU), European Social Fund (ESF)

Using the retail sector as an example, the project explores the question of how interactions between employees and their customers can be designed to generate or promote mutual respect.

  • Deutsche Angestellten-Akademie GmbH DAA Westfalen, Bielefeld
  • Arbeit & Gesundheit e.V., Hamburg
  • Handelsverband Nordrhein-Westfalen Westfalen-Münsterland e.V, Dortmund
  • B. Frieling Service- und Dienstleistungen GmbH & Co. KG, Coesfeld 

The aim of the project is to shape the framework conditions of service interactions as well as the concrete behaviour of service providers and their clients in such a way that mutual respect is generated or promoted. The main aim is to create the conditions for respectful interactions. In a scientific point of view, it will be further examined how respect (or disrespectful behaviour) evolves and how employees, companies, industry representatives and society can develop a new attitude towards respect in the interaction between client and service provider.

Problem definition:

In many service professions, direct contact with customers takes up a large part of the work. In recent years, employees have reported an increasing lack of respect from customers, which leads to demanding or even challenging behaviour. But clients also often feel that they are not treated with respect when it comes to the careful and prudent handling of their requests. This creates a vicious circle of mutual disrespect that can escalate into aggressive behaviour. This is a highly stressful situation for the employees in the long run - and has significant negative effects on productivity and quality for the service companies. The underlying phenomenon of (lack of) mutual respect has not yet been addressed in labour and service research. This research and design gap is to be closed by the project.

Using the retail sector as an example, the project explores the question of how interactions between employees and their customers can be designed to generate or promote mutual respect. The retail sector is the third largest economic sector in Germany with approximately 300,000 companies, an annual turnover of more than 480 billion euros, almost three million employees and about 160,000 trainees. But: the sector has long been characterised by massive competition, progressive concentration, expansion of floor space and a declining share of private consumption. In addition, turnover in retail has been stagnating for years, except for online retail. Furthermore, ongoing digitalisation is forcing structural change in the retail sector and influencing its future.

Respect and disrespect are increasingly being addressed by companies and employees in the retail sector in recent years. The "brutalisation" described above also leads to staffing problems in companies that can no longer be solved via the labour market in the age of a shortage of skilled workers.

Up to now, there have been no adequate, practical concepts for counselling employees or companies on this specific issue. Workplace actors often do not see themselves in a position to adequately deal with the challenges involved. This concerns both the appropriate recording and description of conflictual situations as well as the classification against the background of a basic understanding of professionalism in service relationships with clients as well as the development and implementation of appropriate measures for the avoidance and mediation of conflicts with clients and for the necessary support of employees.

Employees often personalise their difficulties in dealing with customers and experience the conflicts as personal failures or see the "blame" on the customers. They are faced with the dilemma of either behaving aggressively towards the customers - which contradicts the customer orientation in the companies and usually intensifies the problem - or perceiving the experienced "failure" at work as their own fault. Both lead to a loss of one's own sense of self-efficacy and thus to a perceived devaluation of one's own professional competence. In the long run, this can have a negative impact on (especially mental) health, and it can also lead to employees changing professions. This means that they are lost to the labour market as skilled workers.



The aim of the project is to shape the framework conditions of service interactions as well as the concrete behaviour of service providers and their clients in such a way that mutual respect is generated or promoted. It is not about making service personnel fit for disrespectful clients, but about creating conditions for respectful interaction.

The project therefore intends to develop concrete measures and recommendations on how employees interacting with customers, but also service providers, can establish a respectful approach to their clientele. This involves the design of the interaction itself (how to give respect, how to demand respect?) as well as the operational framework conditions. In a scientific point of view, the question of how respect (or disrespectful behaviour) evolves and how employees, companies and industry representatives as well as society can develop a new attitude to respect in the interaction between customer and service provider is to be pursued.

The main goals of the project are to improve the quality of work and service through respectful interaction. Four thematic fields are in the foreground. They relate to the customers, the company actors, the company organisation and the use of technology. In order to develop specific design measures, the following topics and questions are to be pursued in the project:

  • Improving interaction with customers: How can the companies' service promises, e.g. in advertising, be designed so that they can also be honestly kept in the perception of the customers? How can the customers be addressed so that they feel treated respectfully by the company and the employees?
  • Qualification of employees, managers and interest groups: How can employees learn to deal with (difficult) customers in training measures? What can supervisors do to ensure that their employees are treated with respect? What can a works council or staff council do to promote respect in service work?
  • Optimising the operational organisation: How can the service situation be structured in such a way that the behaviour of the employees is comprehensible and understandable for the clientele? How can disputes with clients be settled, how can staff be protected from assaults? How can the operational framework conditions be designed in such a way that they contribute to respectful mutual interaction?
  • Supportive use of technology: How can the interaction between clientele and sales staff be respectful on this new technological basis?


Planned outcomes

As a result, practical information, education and counselling products that can be transferred to other sectors will be developed to support respectful interaction at different levels of intervention.

The project should generate sustainable effects for companies and employees and also on a social level. Therefore, the results and experiences of the project are to be transferred into practical and thus directly usable products, which can be transferred by the institutional partners (ver.d and Handelsverband) into the area of the branches.


The following products are to be created:

  • The project provides scientific findings on the meaning of respect in service relationships and on the design of operational frameworks of respect in interactional work.
  • One of the main results is an institutionalised training programme on respect for employees in the service sector. The aim is to enable employees to treat customers with respect and at the same time demand respect in their interactions.
  • In the project, advisory services are developed to support companies in creating service structures that promote respectful interactions between customers and employees in the retail sector. This mainly concerns organisational structures of interaction, but also influencing the mutual expectations between customers and service providers.
  • Concepts are developed for counselling affected employees, which enable a better understanding of individual experiences with difficult situations in customer relationships and contribute to the development of improved coping strategies in dealing with stressful situations. This contributes to the preservation of health and employability and prevents premature withdrawal from the profession or employment.
  • The transfer of the results and products should be supported at sector level by specific information. This information should raise the companies’ awareness of the issue of respect and at the same time show the possibilities for action.
  • A tool for risk assessment with regard to stressful customer relationships is intended to support companies in taking greater account of the issue in the context of risk assessment.
  • In cooperation with the transfer partners ver.di and the Handelsverband, smaller companies in particular are to be made aware of the topic. This is done through specific events and lectures, business breakfasts and the like.
  • The highlight of the transfer is an event with the working title "1st German Day of Respect in Services". Here, the project actors will discuss and promote a new approach to respect in the interaction between clients and service providers with important social promoters (business, trade unions, politics, culture). This event will be the starting point for further activities that will not only be fed by the project context, but also by different areas of the economy and society, thus ensuring the sustainability and transferability of the project results.


The project "RespectWork" aims at an empirical analysis of the structures, processes and working conditions of service work, considering the digital transformation. Measures and offers for broad support of the operative business, for competence development and for work design are to be developed.

In the first phase (survey), the analysis of work structures, working conditions and interaction situations along the service relationships takes place. The focus of interest is also on concrete changes due to digitalised work processes, requirements and competence profiles of different employee groups in the companies.

The necessary work steps in the first phase are scientific research work, interviews, short case studies and more detailed case analyses. The results of the analyses will be translated into a precise description of needs for the development of instruments.

On this basis, needs-based concepts for respectful interaction in service work will be developed in the second phase (development): Organisational interventions for companies, i.e. a model of action for companies to design respectful interactions, and competence development strategies, i.e. a concrete digital advanced training offer for employees. The information, education and counselling offers are combined within the framework of a procedure model, thus integrating organisational intervention with individual advanced training.

In the third phase (testing), the approaches are applied and tested. This takes place in three steps: In the alpha phase, individual modules are tested in the partner companies. In the beta phase, the overall approach is introduced in the companies. Based on a formative evaluation, short-cycle optimisations of individual modules and processes are implemented.

Transfer (phase four) takes place through media information, events and publication as well as cooperation with associations, trade unions and networks. The products developed in the project are to be transferred to the retail sector already during the project period and to other service sectors after the end of the project.

The measures resulting from the individual phases are processed by an interdisciplinary team (social science, psychology, business administration, labour science) in close cooperation with practice and associations as well as trade unions.

Project leadership:



Location & approach

Exit 13 (Kreuz Dortmund Nord-Ost), direction Derne/Schwerte (B236), 1st exit direction Dortmund-Eving, next traffic lights turn right (Kemminghauser Str.), after 2.7km turn left (Evinger Str./B 54), after 1.1km traffic lights turn left (Deutsche Straße), after 500m on the left is the Evinger Platz.

From the Bundesstraße 1 (extension A40 or A44) to the intersection B1/B236 direction Lünen, 3rd exit direction Dortmund-Eving.

Exit Dortmund Hafen, turn left until the intersection Münsterstraße (B54), direction Eving, after about three kilometers turn into Deutsche Straße.

You can download an enlarged general map here

From Dortmund Airport, it takes just about 20 minutes to get to Dortmund Central Station by AirportExpress and from there to the university by subway (U-Bahn) 41. The stop is "Zeche Minister Stein". A wider range of international flight connections is offered by Düsseldorf Airport, about 60 kilometers away, which can be reached directly by S-Bahn from the university station. From there, you can get directly to Dortmund Central Station.

From Dortmund Central Station, take the U 41 light rail (direction Brambauer / Brechten). The stop is "Zeche Minister Stein". The Minister Stein Center is located on the right in the direction of travel of the streetcar.

You can find an overview map here.