While Amazon is having a much-publicized battle with warehouse employees over unionizing efforts, it’s hardly the only retail organization that has had to navigate the tricky world—and potentially damaging optics—of striking workers, vocal employee protests, or picketing consumers.
Faltering labor negotiations this summer with the United Food and Commercial Workers resulted in protests at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions grocery stores in California, for example. And, on the East Coast, 30,000 Stop and Shop workers went on strike at stores across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. After 10 days of protests, workers agreed to a deal that ended what some called the largest private sector strike in recent years.
External protests are also not uncommon. They can stem from global issues, such as a series of protests in Dublin, Ireland, last month by Extinction Rebellion Ireland, which targeted large retail outlets for the alleged climate impact of “fast fashion.” Or, local ones, such as a recent picketing of a Mobil gas station in Naperville, IL, after a store clerk allegedly hurled racists insults at Hispanic customers.
How social protests or worker strikes are managed from a security perspective directly affects the amount of reputational harm they do. A few years back, for example, an international company dealt with dozens of protestors who disrupted a shareholder meeting by having security officers slowly escort them out of the meeting. Media reported on the protest and cited protesters’ claims and complaints, but because company security and the uniformed police on hand outside kept things under control, it was a one-day story. It was very different a month later, when protesting college students at UC Davis were pepper sprayed and the reputation of the school took hits in the national media for months.
As LP magazine noted in an article several years ago, it is critical for LP to understand that their engagement during a protest may agitate a crowd rather than control it. Attempts by LP, store management, or uniformed security officers to confront, control, or eject protestors from company property are often unsuccessful and protesters often refuse to acknowledge their authority. As such, confrontations with external activists or striking workers are best handled by uniformed police.
But even if law enforcement is better positioned to manage highly charged protests, LP leaders, staff, and store management have important roles to play. Loss prevention’s ability to assess risks may be relied upon for decisions to stay open or to close stores, for example, and advanced training of LP teams on crowd behavior can be vital to managing protest situations. Additionally, a store protest is usually just one aspect of a campaign, which may also involve vandalism, bomb threats, cyberattacks, sustained disinformation campaigns, harassment at corporate offices and shareholders’ meetings, and harassment of key company representatives.
Case in point: Contract cleaning employees, hired to provide cleaning services to a retail chain’s food stores around Minneapolis, were protesting at a store to bring attention to their claim of union-busting activities by their employer. A security guard subsequently pepper sprayed the protesters, one was sent to the hospital, and several alleged claims of assault. The store was raked over the coals on social media.
Understanding protesters—what they want, who they are—is necessary to manage a situation as peacefully as possible. In the Minneapolis example above, the store was the location of the protest, but not the target of it. It’s easy to think that the store, with a little good-natured communication with protesters, could have minimized the protest’s disruption to store patrons while still letting the contract cleaning workers sound-off about their employer.
When security mistakes do happen in response to protest events, organizations and institutions often conduct detailed reviews to discover why—and to identify what changes are necessary to prevent similar errors in the future. These reports can provide corporate retail protection professionals with useful ideas for mitigating damaging fallout from protests. We’ve examined several such reports and offer a few ideas to think about:
- Invoke your organization’s emergency plan. If it’s any good, it will have standardized protocols for communication and decision-making to clearly define the scope of an operation and inject clarity on who in charge of making tactical decisions.
- Consolidate policies on managing demonstrations and civil disobedience. Having policies spread out among departments, and in different locations within each department’s policy manuals, can create confusion during an actual event.
- Include written descriptions of conduct that are or could be perceived as threatening to safety and thus trigger a use of force. These can be shared with unions for universal agreement on what actions cross the line.
- Ensure security policy articulates a clear preference for using the lowest level of force possible, such as persuasion and hands-off compliance.
- Improve the relationship between security personnel and the people they serve. A history of positive interactions between security and other employees will come in handy if a conflict with workers ever arises.
- Communicate throughout the course of demonstrations with protest leaders regarding rules that security will enforce and how it will do so.
- Modify security policy to require senior management participation in planning response to a protest at company facilities or events.
- Require management’s approval immediately before any escalation of force (absent exigent circumstances).
- Coordinate with local law enforcement in advance of planned demonstrations.
- Establish a regular program for joint training, briefings, and scenario planning with law enforcement agencies that security departments are likely to call for assistance.
- Perhaps the most effective way to avoid violent confrontations with protesters is to ensure that security officers on the ground have the knowledge and the temperament to help resolve or manage a situation in a peaceful way. Approval of new hires should extend as high up the management chain as is practical.
- Review compensation to ensure it is competitive to help attract and retain highly qualified security staff and to reduce the risk of bad hires.
Any staff that is expected to engage in activities related to managing protests should have robust training in the areas of crowd management, mediation, and de-escalation of volatile crowd situations. Training on techniques for de-escalating protest situations is particularly important. For example, security officers should be trained on how to limit their response to taunting and other disrespectful but not physically threatening acts.
It’s also important to assess the knowledge of relevant staff on “de-escalation techniques.” De-briefings have often showed that security officers knew these skills were important but had difficulty describing precisely what these techniques involve. While many ‘de-escalation techniques’ may be based on common sense, methods must be taught and rehearsed. Security training should impart de-escalation techniques across three broad categories:
- Communication techniques. Voice tone, volume, and choice of words all will affect how protestors respond.
- Tactics. Dispersal orders, calling in police, the presence of armed officers, and other tactical decisions can play a role in escalating tensions. For example, one report cited the preference, when facing a few unruly protesters among a largely peaceful group, to target those individuals for removal rather than the entire group.
- Restraint. Some protest tactics attempt to provoke a hostile response; staying calm in the face of them is critical. Officers can be taught verbal and nonverbal tactical communication techniques, such as empathy, verbal disarming, and feedback and negotiation, which allow officers to maintain control while reducing the need to escalate a situation.