Retail Employees Reveal Concerns about Workplace Abuse

Front-line interviews with retail workers faced with the scourge of increased workplace abuse.

workplace abuse

According to the 2018 figures from both the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), violence and workplace abuse leveled against retail store staff is dramatically on the increase. The figures have been further underlined by a survey from the UK’s Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) that looks beyond the statistics by interviewing retail staff face-to-face about their experiences of violence and where they feel the problems lie.

During these candid interviews—some of the outputs of which are shared here—there is more than a suggestion that store policies could be actively encouraging the problem by “rewarding” aggressive customers with vouchers once the incident is reported or a complaint is made.

USDAW is the union for retail workers in the UK, with over 330,000 of its 434,000 members working in stores. In 2003, the union launched its Freedom from Fear campaign in response to members’ concerns about increasing levels of violence and workplace abuse.

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Since then, USDAW has worked with the public, retail employers, the police, and government officials to protect shop workers. Over the years, it looked as if the problem was being contained. However, evidence indicates a marked increase in levels of abuse and violence in the last couple of years, and the need for the campaign is more pressing than ever.

Measuring the Workplace Abuse Experience on the Front Line

Since 2007, USDAW has surveyed between 1,500 and 5,000 shop workers each year to collect information on the extent of the problem. As it involves personal discussion on a one-to-one basis with a fellow associate, the survey casts useful light on the issue of under-reporting.

2017 Results: Verbal Abuse and Threats
Over the last ten years, the results have been remarkably consistent. Typically, between 50 to 60 percent of workers reported at least one incident of verbal abuse in the last twelve months, and 30 to 35 percent reported at least one incident of threat of physical violence in the last year.

If there was any trend, it was towards a slight decline in reports of abuse and threats.


However, the 2017 results show a disturbing and significant increase in both abuse and threats. Sixty-six percent reported verbal abuse, and the proportion reporting threats of physical violence increased to 42 percent.

Verbal Abuse 2017

Threats Data 2017


Physical Assaults
For the last six years, we have asked if workers were physically assaulted in the last twelve months. This figure also shows a sharp upturn after five years of decline.

Triggers for Violence and Workplace Abuse
We asked associates an open-ended question about what happened to them to identify triggers for violence and abuse. Analysis of the answers reveals significant changes in the responses for 2017 compared to 2016.

Age-restricted sales still remains the most common trigger at around 30 percent. However, theft has increased from 15 to 21 percent. For the first time, there is mention of concern about low staffing levels. Racism is identified as a trigger in 4 percent of reports. This matches reports from other sources of increased hate crime following the Brexit vote and the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment.

The rise in theft as a trigger may be linked to the view of nearly 70 percent of workers that shop theft has increased in the last year.

What Workers Want

There are also major changes to the responses to the other open-ended question asking workers what else they would like to see employers doing.

The most obvious difference is the massive growth in the demand for more support from managers, up from 34 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2017, and for the first time, a clear call for a zero-tolerance approach towards the perpetrators with banning of offenders and involvement of law enforcement.

A Worrying Increase

Taken with the evidence from other surveys such as the BRC Retail Crime survey and the ACS Crime Report, there has been a serious increase in the levels of violence and workplace abuse—much of it linked to a rise in shop theft. The BRC survey reported a doubling of reports of violence with injury, and the ACS reported a similar rise in attacks as well as a massive increase in shop theft.

The USDAW survey shows that workers are feeling much more vulnerable as a result. The protective measures employers may have in place are not proving effective against the rising tide of violence.

Why Are Things Getting Worse?

Retail theft is on the increase. There is also solid evidence that hate crime has increased. At the same time, police resources in the UK have been slashed, and pressure on the police to deal with other crimes is increasing.

Competitive pressures in retail have led to major restructuring, resulting in fewer staff in many stores and management reorganization, which has resulted in the loss of valuable expertise, skills, and knowledge. Training and procedures developed ten years ago are no longer appropriate for the current situation.

To give one example, most training on refusing a sale to someone who may be underage is still based on the worker standing behind a counter/checkout and dealing with the customer individually. Yet for workers monitoring self-scan checkouts, the associate has to stand beside the person they are challenging for ID and also has to be keeping an eye on up to eight to ten other customers at the same time. It is hardly surprising that retail workers are feeling more vulnerable as a result of all this change.

The Way Forward

The good news is that other major stakeholders have also recognized the seriousness of the situation. Both the BRC and ACS have identified violence to staff as the most significant risk in the sector. The National Business Crime Centre has made it their priority. All are working alongside USDAW on the Violence Reduction Working Group set up by the Home Office National Retail Crime Steering Group.

Much more needs to be done to ensure cooperation among retailers, law enforcement, and government to treat such crimes with the seriousness they deserve. For example, we need better reporting to ensure that the retailer can provide the right evidence so that incidents where workers are assaulted or abused are not simply reported as having a shoplifter in the store, and the Police and courts can respond appropriately.

USDAW will continue to challenge employers to make sure they do have effective procedures in place to protect staff by doing what they can to prevent incidents and by providing more effective support to workers when they are involved in incidents.

Key issues include practical and realistic training for all staff and, in particular, giving store managers and their immediate supervisors the tools and knowledge necessary to intervene when staff need their support. But it also involves revisiting procedures at all levels to make sure they are fit for purpose. Store-based risk assessment must involve store staff, and reporting of incidents has to be encouraged to give a more accurate picture of the scale of the problem.

This article was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2018. This excerpt was updated April 17, 2019. 

SIDEBAR: Sample Comments from Store Associates

“When refusing age-restricted sales, customers can become abusive. One even threatened to burn my house down and hoped my children would die.”

“During night shift, a man came into the store and threatened me with a knife; it was 02:00 hours. He stole a box of beer. We later found out that a little earlier before he came into the store, he had stabbed a man in the neck.”

“Customers get aggressive when they don’t get their own way. I have been called every name under the sun and made to feel worthless. Sometimes I dread going into work because of the abuse some people think it’s OK to give a sales assistant. You are not human when you are in uniform stood behind a counter.”

“Whilst they are supportive, nothing is said to customers. I think they should be asked to apologize or leave the store. We need signs that inform customers that we don’t tolerate threats, violence, or verbal abuse.”

“Managers should listen to their staff instead of rewarding the abuser by giving them vouchers for their abuse and bad behavior.”

“Listen to the staff. It always seems as though the customer is right, even when they are wrong.”

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