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Retail Security and the Industry’s Labor Challenge Go Hand-in-hand

Recent disturbing incidents of store violence underscore the pressing need for society to do more to protect retail associates from harm at work, an issue that many retailers are making a top priority. However, it’s not only horrific acts of violence that are taking a toll; incivility, threats, and bullying are also having an insidious impact on retail organizations.

Shocking cases in January reflect the limitations of retail security and the need for intervention at a more fundamental level. Brianna Kupfer, for example, was working alone in a high-end furniture store in L.A.’s Hancock Park area in the middle of the afternoon when a homeless man entered, stabbed her to death, and then strolled away down the street, as seen in security video. A week earlier in South L.A., 41-year-old Alejandro Garcia was shot and killed by a Taco Bell drive-thru customer after refusing to accept counterfeit cash.

Retailers are limited in their ability to protect staff from random attacks, but that does not isolate them from the fallout. For many, retail jobs are losing attractiveness. Between the risk of store violence, staff and product shortages adding to job stress, heightened exposure to the coronavirus, and dealing with uncooperative or angry customers, store morale has taken a hard hit—and it is exacerbating the labor challenge currently facing retailers.

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“As the Great Resignation rolls on, business leaders are struggling to make sense of the factors driving the mass exodus. More importantly, they are looking for ways to hold on to valued employees,” notes analysis by researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management. They conclude that the primary driver of today’s work exodus is not poor pay but toxic company culture, which is “by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover.”

Reducing workplace toxicity, therefore, seems critical if retail businesses are to manage their labor shortage, and while it’s a multifaceted mission, putting resources toward increasing workforce protections is clearly part of it. Workers are unlikely to describe their workplace as toxic if they believe that their personal safety and security is a top priority of company management.

Data suggests that retailers may have significant work ahead to gain back the trust of workers. Of complaints made to OSHA during the pandemic, a clear majority were made by workers in two industries: healthcare and retail. “Workplace violence has increased in the COVID-19 pandemic due to confrontations about pandemic safety recommendations and policies inside of workplaces. This is especially true in already-high-risk settings for violence: healthcare, transit, retail, and other settings,” according to a report by the AFL-CIO in May 2021, “Death on the Job—The Toll of Neglect.”

Store climate and security link in another critical way, according to research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The field study of 111 stores found that as incivility grows, so does theft and loss.

“Results demonstrate that performance pressure and ethical leadership interact to influence store-level incivility. Further, stores with higher incivility also had higher levels of shrink.” In light of increasingly thin margins in the retail industry, promoting civility in the workplace may offer a solution to retailers looking to stem financial losses, concludes the 2019 study, “Predicting retail shrink from performance pressure, ethical leader behavior, and store-level incivility.”

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Creating Safer, More Civil Store Environments

The nation’s information divide—and the polarization it has wrought—may be instructional for stores as they craft strategies to reduce conflict to attract and retain workers. There is a need to recognize that employees often perceive similar events, situations, and behavior differently—so getting workers on the same page may help create a path to making stores better environments to work in.

Goodwill of Southern California is a good example, having been an early adopter of an “interpersonal misconduct” policy designed to improve consideration and respect in the workplace. It noted in part: “Interpersonal misconduct is an individual’s behavior that bullies, demeans, intimidates, ridicules, insults, frightens, persecutes, exploits, and/or threatens a targeted individual and would be perceived as such by a reasonable person.”

The policy grew out of its four values stipulated in its strategic vision: respect, integrity, service, and excellence, and a desire to inject those values through a policy rather than just preaching. Its policy also had teeth, allowing for employees to be terminated or moved to another location for a violation—although coaching or training in management techniques is more common.

The organization’s proactive approach to bullying prevention is something more employers might need to emulate, according to data from the 2021 WBI US Workplace Bullying Survey. In it, 13 percent of workers said they are currently experiencing bullying at work or have in the past year, and another 17 percent said they’ve been a victim of it in past. Include Americans who have seen it happen to others and those who admit to having been perpetrators themselves, and the impact of bullying has been felt by more than half of the US workforce.

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The survey notes that employers are doing a better job than in years past of intervening in cases of bullying and holding perpetrators accountable, but warns that policies alone are proving insufficient to change behavior that some workers may have engaged in for years. “That requires some training, coaching, and an engaged management that fully understands the nuances of workplace bullying,” according to the study.

Workers often have vastly different interpretations of what conduct constitutes an act of workplace violence. A study by Doherty Partners LLC is one of several to show that managers feel substantially safer than line workers and that male workers and female workers often view identical incidents differently. For example, if a co-worker has an argument with a spouse or family member at work, 77 percent of female workers perceive it as an act of workplace violence compared to only 54 percent of men. And if a client has an outburst, 44 percent of women but only 25 percent of men are likely to regard it as workplace violence. The results affirm how critical it is for an organization to educate employees on its definition of workplace violence, to outline behavior that is not allowed, and to inform workers of the complete range of incidents it wants employees to bring to the attention of managers.

Here are three other considerations as retailers strive to positively influence store climate:

  • Media reports may distort the perception of risks, according to researchers from the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at the UCLA School of Public Health. Companies are often too focused on preventing the types of cases that get press attention and advise that rather than letting national trends or news reports guide them, companies must analyze internal incident data and focus on their own specific areas of risk.
  • Teens may be particularly vulnerable to conflict. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, in conjunction with several advocacy groups, conducted a survey several years ago of teen retail workers and found gaps in preparing them for their job positions. At the time, 75 percent of teen employees received no training on how to manage robbers or shoplifters, even though 27 percent had encountered such an event at work. The study recommended that retail businesses post clear safety policies specifying how employees can protect themselves from workplace violence and train all employees how to respond to armed robbery and theft situations and how to address angry customers and stress.
  • The customer is not always right. A survey of American workers by researchers at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University showed that suffering the screams, insults, and threats of clients and customers is common for public-facing workers and “exposure to aggressive behavior at work is associated with a wide range of negative consequences,” including costing businesses by fostering negative work attitudes, hurting productivity, and increasing absenteeism and turnover. Even as mask mandates and other pandemic points of conflict recede, retailers must strive to give store associates better tools and skills to help them manage customers if they hope to retain good workers.

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