Workplace violence

When customers get hostile

Help workers stay safe

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What employers can do

NIOSH recommends that employers provide training on strategies to recognize, avoid and respond to potentially violent situations.

According to the agency, warning signs of violence include verbal cues (such as speaking loudly or swearing) and nonverbal cues (clenched fists, heavy breathing, a fixed stare and pacing).

Steve Fabick is a Birmingham, MI-based psychologist whose areas of expertise include conflict resolution and stress management. He advises workers responding to violence or potential violence to be mindful not only of the individual, but also the situation.

“Acknowledge the context,” Fabick said.

Workers also can keep from appearing harsh or judgmental by maintaining neutral eye contact and avoiding body language that may be construed as hostile, such as crossed arms or finger pointing.

“When the aggressive person feels it’s not ‘you vs. me,’ and when they feel at all heard and acknowledged and even some degree of empathy, it increases their likelihood that they’re going to de-escalate and see, perhaps, other options rather than just, ‘I have to fight you and get through you to get what I need,’” Fabick said.

NIOSH also recommends that workers report to managers or supervisors any perceived threats or acts of violence, and provide support to colleagues and customers if threatening or violent situations arise.

“Early intervention is essential and requires a supportive, nonjudgmental approach,” the National Retail Federation says. “Acknowledge the customer’s concerns and give them an opportunity to vent before asking them to do something they might not like (for example, wear a mask).”

Talk it through

In a blog post on NRF’s website, Dave Young, co-founder and director of training for conflict-management firm Vistelar, says that customers may grow upset even in situations in which workers or employers follow proper de-escalation strategies.

“We’re responsible for the process,” Young writes. “We’re not held accountable for the outcome, because the outcome is out of our control.” Still, experts say presenting a calm attitude while avoiding matching threats and giving orders can help increase the chances that customers don’t resort to violence.

At the same time, workers should remain vigilant, acknowledging the customer’s feelings with “I” statements (One example: “I know this isn’t always easy”) and being mindful of each situation. Fabick called the approach “de-escalating in terms of your response, speaking softly but carrying enough of a stick – to use the old Teddy Roosevelt saying – that you’re not afraid to use a logical consequence and impose some sort of limitation.”

To that end, NRF advises workers to ask hostile customers to step aside “and offer to let them discuss the problem with a manager.” If the situation persists, request 
help from a co-worker, a supervisor or security and “divert the person to an area with fewer customers to prevent other people from escalating as well, and to keep everyone safe.”

NIOSH recommends that workers not isolate themselves with a violent person, and to keep an open path to flee the situation.

In the absence of security in the workplace or an employer policy that addresses the situation, the worker should call 911 if they’re in danger of bodily harm or being threatened, the agency says.

In extreme cases, NIOSH advises retreating to a safe area – “ideally, a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm.”

‘Focus on the employees’

Young writes that “the better trained your people are, the more the out-of-control situations are a rarity.”

To Grandey, that notion can be reinforced by offering workplace safety and health programs that promote physical and mental well-being. Further, by having access to these resources, employees are more likely to feel physically and psychologically safe at work – and therefore more likely to stay in their job. When they don’t feel protected and supported, they’re more likely to leave.

“I would encourage employers to remember that, because without your employees, you can’t serve those customers, and there’s plenty of customers out there,” Grandey said. “The ones that are abusive are still more rare than the ones that are respectful, at least from what I’ve seen. So we [need] to focus on the employees and keeping them safe.”

Keep teen workers safe

For teen workers, many of whom have jobs in retail or restaurants, dealing with hostile customers may be even more intimidating. NIOSH’s take:

“Teens often lack work experience and their employers frequently do not provide training on workplace violence prevention, which benefits workers of all ages. Given that teens are still developing and maturing physically, cognitively and emotionally, they require workplace safety and health training, including training related to violence prevention that is tailored to their specific needs and circumstances. Also, young workers should not work alone, late at night and around cash.

“It is important for employers to adhere to federal and state child labor laws that help protect young people from working in jobs that can harm their health or safety.”

For more information, visit the CDC website's Young Retail Workers topic page.

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