Is Workplace Harassment on the Rise?

How to protect associates from workplace harassment in an increasingly rude world.

workplace harassment

In the aftermath of the last holiday shopping season, brawls erupted in shopping malls across the country. Cell phone videos captured chaotic, frightening scenes that went viral and earned repeated play on television. The images may have solidified a burgeoning impression that many people hold—that the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society is weakening. For sales associates working in retail stores today, providing customer service may seem increasingly like being on the front lines.

On the issue of customer incivility, what does the data suggest? Is it true that rudeness—and worse, like workplace harassment—is growing? It’s not entirely clear if it is or if Facebook anecdotes, saturating news coverage, and video sharing just provides that impression. However, there are indications that store personnel in 2017 may, indeed, be working in more highly charged environments than in years’ past.

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The most recent available data is from the UK, where incidents of violence and abuse of retail staff grew by 22 percent in 2015, according to the British Retail Consortium Retail Crime Survey. Incidents increased from 32 per 1,000 employees in 2014 to 41 incidents per 1,000 employees in 2015. Many cases were limited to non-physical abuse or aggressive behavior, but 21 incidents per 1,000 involved some measure of physical violence. The most recent data from the United States is from a survey by LPM/SDR in 2013, which showed that 35.7 percent of loss prevention executives believed verbal harassment and abuse of employees by customers was on the rise; only 7.1 percent thought it was on the decline.

Faced with rising rudeness, the mission to protect personnel assets from violence seems increasingly complicated. So what can retailers do about it?

Responding to Incivility and Workplace Harassment

If store personnel today are indeed working in more abusive environments than a decade ago, then it’s imperative for loss prevention teams to review the steps it takes to keep them safe and to ask whether they are sufficiently training employees how to deal with unruly customers. Shouting, cursing, name-calling, and other inappropriate behavior by members of the public—if not effectively managed—can spark a physical altercation. “A store associate has to have a base understanding of when an angry customer is becoming a threat that requires notifying security,” explained Anthony Mangeri, director of fire & emergency management strategic relationships for American Public University System, in an interview with LP Magazine (“Focus on the 4 Ps to Meet Loss Prevention’s New Mandate in a More Violent World“).

Even if an incident doesn’t escalate to physical violence, it can still have an impact on retail staff. Recent research by the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University found that exposure to aggressive behavior at work is associated with a wide range of negative consequences, including fostering negative work attitudes, hurting productivity, causing emotional exhaustion, and increasing absenteeism and turnover.

The inability of staff to properly respond to volatile situations can also harm a retailer’s reputation. A story went viral last year, for example, when a Dollar General store employee in Georgia grabbed a customer’s child after the boy threw a cookie at her and smacked the child repeatedly with a belt. The employee faced charges of aggravated assault and cruelty to children, and the company endured endless Internet jabs to its reputation, such as “Dollar General now offering spankings—$1.” In a 2013 study of customer service, published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, researchers discovered that some employees are driven to engage in retaliatory behavior when they perceive they’ve been treated unjustly by customers.

When an incident arises, it’s the ability of employees to de-escalate it that matters most, and the failure to do so can trigger acts of serious violence. Consider the tragic case of Ahmed Nahl, a salesman at a men’s clothing store in Tennesee. On trial for his murder, William Johnson testified that he took a gun to the store to intimidate Nahl, angry that suits that were supposed to be tailored weren’t ready. An argument between the two grew heated and—irate that he couldn’t get his money back—Johnson shot Nahl in the stomach. The incident is not an isolated example. Customers and clients now commit 9 percent of all workplace homicides, which is more than double the level in 2003. In light of the danger, retail staff with public contact should be trained on recognizing signs of potentially violent behavior, verbal de-escalation, and personal safety precautions, including escape techniques.

In addition to training, retailers might take other steps to reduce the likelihood of employees becoming embroiled in situations where de-escalation becomes necessary. These include:

  • A policy allowing employees to refuse service to unruly customers, which OSHA includes in its recommendations to prevent workplace violence.
  • Adequate staffing levels. Research shows that employees are more vulnerable to abuse when they lack support from coworkers, and that the number of incidents increases sharply as the number of employees is reduced.
  • Clarity on incident reporting. For LP leaders to develop effective strategies to protect employees they need a full accounting of incidents that occur. To that end, retailers need to create awareness of the types of incidents that staff should report and to whom. Data lays the groundwork for staff training that is tailored to the risks they face. This is important because certain types of workplace harassment and abuse occur more in some types of retail environments than in others. For example, women working in the restaurant industry report being victims of sexual harassment at a disproportionately high rate, according to a 2015 study published in the Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law, Workplace Violence and Harassment of Low-Wage Workers.
  • Addressing environmental factors. Reducing frustration among customers helps reduce angry confrontations with employees, so taking steps to make customers comfortable can help, such as adequate space for crowd size, accurate and sufficient signage, cleanliness, and comfortable temperature.

On this last point, it may be helpful for retailers to pay strict attention to—and gather data on—the issues that most anger customers. According to ClickFox’s Customer Tipping Points Benchmarking survey, customers are most frustrated when they have to speak with multiple staff to resolve an issue and start over every time. Some 42 percent of all respondents say this is their most frustrating tipping point. Other issues that are quick to anger customers are long wait times and rude or inexperienced staff, according to the survey.

Although active shooter incidents grab more attention, no other form of violence is growing faster than the workplace harassment and abuse that employees suffer at the hands of customers and clients. So, just as retailers need a plan to protect workers from potential gun violence, they also need strategies to assist workers with managing the certainty of unruly customer behavior.

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