Store Violence: How Focus Groups Can Generate Solutions, Build Support, and Demonstrate Concern

A national quick service restaurant has become the subject of a class action that alleges it failed to take steps to prevent customer-facing staff from violence. The lawsuit is indicative of several workforce trends, including heightened attention on the risks faced by retail associates, increasing sensitivity to harassment faced by female employees, and a growing willingness of employees to vocalize complaints about a perceived lack of support from company management. In response, it’s clear that retail organizations benefit from prevention programs that have employee support and provide them the tools they think they need to stay safe.

Enter the focus group?

Using employee focus groups is a proven way to gain employee support for security programs and can help spur new solutions for companies that feel they’ve hit the wall on violence prevention. Companies may repeatedly assess risk and implement all security measures that seem reasonable, but unless security planners meet with the workers the store is trying to protect, to discuss how you’re trying to protect them, it’s unlikely to have a full picture of possible—and impossible—protection measures.

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Focus groups or stakeholder subcommittees can be an invaluable part of continuously improving a retailer’s security operation. Security managers or consultants understand prevention best practices, but employees better understand nuances of their job and how security measures fit into it than anyone else can. Using focus groups allows security teams to leverage employees’ and managers’ expertise to full effect, providing insight into whether store security strategies and policies are relevant, feasible, and comprehensive.

The focus group model has been used successfully in the healthcare sector for years, including one study that concluded that focus groups are a good way to test assumptions about violence prevention and to encourage support and build consensus for measures to prevent violence in hospital emergency departments (“Using Action Research to Plan a Violence Prevention Program for Emergency Departments,” Journal of Emergency Nursing). The project yielded several valuable lessons for any retail operation that embarks on the use of focus groups to develop or implement strategies to make stores safer for employees.

1. Identify key areas of agreement between different groups of employees. Regarding measures needed to prevent or mitigate violence, a security team’s expertise will give rise to the strategies it believes is necessary. However, to prioritize security activities, it is helpful to also consider the strategies that, managers, store associates, and even customers all agree are important. For example, a focus group with all three stakeholders might identify that consistency in following policies helps to reduce conflict and frustration among customers. Or all three groups might agree that store associates aren’t skilled in conflict resolution and aggression management techniques. If there is consensus among all stakeholders, security teams have a good indication of issues that demand high priority.

2. Understand the practicality of security procedures. Focus groups with different groups of participants may help to identify when a security procedure or policy may be undercut by other issues, such as staffing or available technology. When focus groups identify barriers to following security procedures in this way, it informs the security team that the store must either (a) develop alternative countermeasures or (b) make it possible for employees to follow existing security procedures.

3. Get support for security’s efforts. One complaint a focus group may raise is that policy does not allow security staff to proactively intervene in situations that seem to be turning dangerous. Another might be that reduction in security personnel increases risk and puts more security burden on store associates. It is typical for focus groups on workplace violence to result in added support for additional resources to be allocated to security to adequately handle violent persons. A security department’s ability to garner the resources it needs for protection is greatly enhanced when line workers have a forum in which to express such sentiments to management.

4. Raise security as a priority. One common focus group outcome is to identify disconnects, such as between desires for a safe work environment and management priorities. For example, employees may voice the opinion that stores are more focused on maintaining a positive public image than addressing employee safety or say that reports of harassment by customers aren’t taken seriously. Providing a forum for raising such concerns can build grassroots support for making security a bigger priority, which can go a long way in forging a stronger security culture within an organization.

5. Identify specific measures workers think would be most helpful. Even though they are not security experts, store associates contend with difficult customers, aggressive shoplifters, and potentially violent individuals every day, making them uniquely positioned to suggest useful security procedures or devices. For example, while security leaders may be wondering if investing in gunshot detection devices is a good idea, store personnel may recommend more basic practices that they think would make a difference but which may be overlooked, such as simpler methods to make security incident reports and for feedback on reported incidents. Of course, focus groups will invariably come up with suggestions that may not be practical to implement, but it is common for focus groups to generate ideas that are easier to enact and less costly.

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