The importance of workplace safety is not a new concept by any means. Retailers have long acknowledged the importance of providing a positive, proactive safety culture that supports an environment where both employees and customers feel safe and secure. It reflects the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and values that employees share. It provides a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for customers. But in today’s retail environment, safety can take on a more literal and profound meaning. When violence becomes a factor, it takes things to an entirely different level.
Core Retail Concepts
Retail is a business; and businesses are in business to make money and turn a profit. But we all know the actual process is much more complicated than that. When looking at the retail industry from a global perspective, we must consider what it takes to build a successful retail business and make that business most profitable. Looking at some of the core concepts:
- We must take positive steps to establish an identity that will attract customers. Establishing our identity sets the tone for everything that follows.
- We want to provide a quality product at an attractive price. Consumers will look for value for their dollar, and if they don’t get it, they will simply shop somewhere else.
- We must display product in a way that makes it desirable to purchase. This concept must reach beyond the actual display of merchandise and extend to the general appeal, appearance, and efficiency of the store.
- We must take steps to make our customers feel important, that we will take care of them, we value their opinions and their business, and want them to return and offer their future business.
- We must provide an environment where customers and employees feel comfortable, confident, safe, and secure. Our business must provide an atmosphere where customers want to shop and should reflect the culture that best fits our core customer.
The most successful retail operations recognize these simple but critical concepts as essential. And while retail is a dynamic business, it can also be a delicate venture. Many retail operations that falter or fail typically do so because they have in some way lost sight of one or more of these core business concepts. Unfortunately, one of those concepts has drawn considerable attention in recent years, causing significant concern for retailers, our customers, and our employees.
The Escalation of Violence
Workplace violence refers to any act or threat of physical violence, abuse, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs in the work setting. It can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, contractors, customers, and other visitors. It can even impact those working from home. Regardless of how it manifests itself, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees around the world.
Workplace violence can strike anywhere at any time, and no one is immune. But while incidents of workplace violence can occur in most every working environment, there are certain types of businesses that are more prone to issues. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics retail employers have reported experiencing some form of workplace violence at a rate substantially higher than other private industry establishments.
Why? Research has identified factors that may increase the risk of violence for some workers at certain worksites. This would include working:
- In a setting where money is exchanged with the public.
- In positions where goods and services are delivered.
- With volatile and/or unstable people.
- In depressed economic communities and/or areas with high crime rates.
- Alone, in small groups, or in isolated
- In stressful or unpredictable
- In industries that provide services or care to customers.
- Where alcohol is served or sold.
- Late at night or early in the morning.
- In positions with extensive interaction with the public.
Considering how many of these factors would directly apply to the business, it’s not difficult to imagine how just about any retail location might hold the potential for concern.
Any number of situations in the work environment can cause an escalation that leads to workplace violence. It may be the result of stress, threats, harassment, bullying, emotional abuse, intimidation, and other forms of misconduct in the workplace, but may also involve non-work-related situations such as domestic violence, stalking, or other incidents that make their way into the work setting. Workplace violence can be inflicted by an abusive employee, a manager, supervisor, co-worker, customer, family member, or those involved in other criminal activity.
The National Retail Federation’s most recent National Retail Security Survey cites “guest- on- associate violence” as becoming a greater priority among retailers than any other crime. Further, when loss prevention executives were asked about their priorities, retail violence was identified as the most common concern. Whatever the cause or whomever the perpetrator, all are part of a problem that can create anxiety, fear, and a climate of distrust that is not to be accepted or tolerated in the retail environment.
“Employees are scared to work in the current retail environment. Customer escalations are becoming more commonplace.”
So, just how serious is the problem? In addition to the incidents that we are aware of, how many go unreported? How is the problem impacting our customers and our employees? How strong are the programs that we currently have in place to combat the risk to our customers and employees? How comfortable are our employees that these programs sufficiently address the problem?
We Asked for Your Opinions
To help us find some of those answers, LP Magazine asked the retail community to take part in a survey focused on many of the key questions and concerns regarding violence in the retail workplace. Those sharing their opinions were strongly encouraged to be open and honest in their responses, with the identities of all those participating in the survey remaining strictly confidential.
Invitations to participate in the survey were extended through mailing lists, extensive retail social media outlets, and LP Magazine’s daily newsletter. Industry leaders representing retailers across the country were also contacted directly and encouraged to share the survey with their team members.
Participation in the survey was exclusively limited to retail employees. To represent the thoughts and opinions of those most accurately across the industry, we did not further limit participation based on experience levels or any other restrictions.
By providing an objective window into the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of retail practitioners regarding these areas, our goal was to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how retail employees perceive these important questions, open doors for additional discussion, and perhaps spark fresh thoughts and ideas on how we can best address these topics to further enhance our safety and security efforts.
Collecting and Reporting Survey Results
Construction of the survey and the collection of survey results were managed through a professional survey platform to further protect the accuracy of the results, the integrity of the process, and the anonymity of the survey respondents. Approximately 400 retail employees participated in the survey. These respondents represented different levels of experience, backgrounds, positions, aspirations, and responsibilities.
Only minor edits were made to respondents’ comments to correct spelling and grammar, further protect their anonymity and alleviate similar concerns. Otherwise, the thoughts and opinions shared in these comments are strictly those expressed by the individual respondents as they completed the survey.
While retail practitioners from across the industry took part in the survey, 85 percent of those participating held positions in retail loss prevention or asset protection departments. Employees at every level of retail were well represented as part of the survey, with more than 32 percent of participants representing top retail leadership. Retail platforms from across the industry were also well‑represented, with participation spread across the various retail formats.
What Do Employees Think?
Do retail employees believe that their workplace is safe? Overall, approximately 70 percent of survey respondents believe that their area of responsibility is safe from incidents of workplace violence. However, only 6 percent believe that their area of responsibility is very safe, while approximately 50 percent believe their area of responsibility is relatively safe.
Approximately 28 percent of survey respondents consider their area of responsibility to be unsafe from incidents of workplace violence, with 5 percent believing their area of responsibility is very unsafe. Approximately 14 percent believe their area of responsibility is relatively unsafe. Comments indicate that most believe the problem has accelerated in recent years.
“Relatively safe based on the number, frequency, and severity of incidents that have occurred. We experience violent incidents weekly, ranging from verbal threats, physical assaults, and on very rare occasions the presence of a weapon.”
“Relatively” would appear to be a key word. Approximately 18 percent of survey respondents—or nearly one in five—indicate that they have been directly involved as a victim of workplace violence within their company over the past year. Of those surveyed, 23 percent say they were a victim of verbal assault, 14 percent were a victim of physical assault, 10 percent were the victim of bullying or emotional assault, and 3 percent say that they were the victim of a sexual assault in the past year.
Approximately 60 percent of survey respondents—or three in five—indicate that they have witnessed an incident of workplace violence within their company over the past year. 55 percent report they have witnessed a verbal assault, 49 percent witnessed a physical assault, 42 percent witnessed bullying or emotional assault, and 21 percent say they witnessed a sexual assault in the past year. Most of the comments provided by respondents reported that they have witnessed multiple incidents of workplace violence.
While many of our respondents are loss prevention professionals that may be more likely to deal with conflict situations simply based on the nature of the position, these numbers would still tend to be eye-opening.
“In the past seven months, I have had to investigate the shooting death of an employee on our sales floor, the shooting of a guard that was hospitalized for several months and countless assaults on our employees and guards by people who believe that they are entitled to steal from our store without being approached.”
What type of workplace violence currently poses the greatest or most serious risk to employees and customers? Based on survey results, customer incidents are a primary concern, with 68 percent of respondents stating that these issues pose the greatest or most serious risk to employees and customers in their area of responsibility. This was followed closely by criminal issues at 63 percent, active shooter situations at 43 percent, co-worker incidents at 40 percent, and domestic violence issues at 28 percent. Participants voiced strong opinions regarding each type of concern.
“These are among the most controllable aspects of our business. We can get to know and monitor our team members, but we don’t know who is coming in and what state of mind they are in.”
Customer incidents are also the most frequent concern, with 69 percent of respondents stating that these issues pose the most frequent risk to employees and customers in their area of responsibility. This was followed by criminal issues at 57 percent, co-worker incidents at 33 percent, active shooter situations at 16 percent, and domestic violence issues at 16 percent.
“It’s all about employee and customer safety. Active Shooter may get all the headlines but crime on employees and customers is a daily occurrence.”
Approximately 36 percent of survey respondents indicate that there have been twelve or more incidents of workplace violence in their area of responsibility over the past twelve months. Approximately 7 percent report there have been 10-12 incidents, 7 percent say there have been 7-9 incidents, 15 percent state there have been 4-6 incidents, and 23 percent say there have been 1-3 incidents. 12 percent report that there have been no incidents of workplace violence in their area of responsibility over the past twelve months. Keep in mind that these numbers will be impacted by the total area of responsibility assumed by each of the respondents.
“Shootings and gun-related incidents near our store or in the mall have increased to the point that there is now an incident every weekend.”
Approximately 55 percent of survey respondents indicated that the most recent incident of workplace violence occurred within the last thirty days. Approximately 20 percent reported that the most recent incident occurred within 1-3 months, and 10 percent stated 4-6 months. 8 percent of respondents say it’s been more than a year since the last incident occurred in their area of responsibility.
“During the time I started to take this survey, I had to stop and deal with a violent outburst between two employees…”
While respondents see a wide spectrum of issues contributing to the increase in violence in the retail workplace, respondents believe the broad erosion of consequences for crime is a primary concern, with 78 percent indicating that this is contributing the most to the problem. This was followed by social and cultural norms that encourage violence at 69 percent, poor economic issues at 61 percent, increased stress in the workplace at 47 percent, and low staffing levels, extended shifts, and overtime requirements at 44 percent.
“Every one of these has an impact. However, the number one reason the crimes are rising is the lowering of the consequences for the criminal.”
The Level of Concern
How concerned are employees with the threat of violence? We asked participants to rank their concerns on a scale of 1-10, ten being extremely concerned and one being not concerned at all, in several primary areas of concern. We then asked them to offer their thoughts on whether violence in these areas has increased, decreased, or remained the same over the past five years in each category:
- Survey respondents averaged a response of 7.2 regarding their concern with the threat of criminal activity (shoplifting, robberies, organized retail crime, and other crimes) leading to violence in the workplace. Approximately 90 percent of survey respondents reported that the threat in their area of responsibility has increased over the past five years, with 55 percent indicating that it has significantly increased.
“ORC at all levels seem to have been emboldened by the lack of prosecution.”
- Participants averaged a response of 6.3 regarding their concern with the threat of customer activity (disgruntled shoppers and other incidents) leading to violence in the workplace.
- Approximately 87 percent of survey respondents reported that the threat in their area of responsibility has increased over the past five years, with 35 percent indicating that it has significantly increased.
“Customers are growing more disgruntled every day due to economic issues such as rising prices, loss of jobs, which causes some customers to lash out in ways they normally wouldn’t.”
- Participants averaged a response of 4.8 regarding their concern with the threat of co-worker activity (current or past employees of the business) leading to violence in the workplace. Approximately 52 percent of survey respondents reported that the threat in their area of responsibility has increased over the past five years, with 7 percent indicating it has significantly increased.
“I do not have enough data to answer this properly. However, we had a co‑worker murder another employee in the store over the last year.”
- Participants averaged a response of 4.4 regarding their concern with the threat of domestic violence (when the perpetrator has no legitimate relationship to the business but has a personal relationship with the intended victim) leading to violence in the workplace.
- Approximately 38 percent reported that the threat has increased over the past five years, with 7 percent indicating that it has significantly increased.
“This may be in part due to better reporting and programs designed to educate and encourage participation.”
- Survey participants averaged a response of 5.7 regarding their concern with the threat of active shooter incidents in the workplace.
- Overall, survey respondents believe that the recent incidents of workplace violence have impacted store employees in many ways, to include general fear concerns (74%), morale (66%), turnover (46%), and productivity (42%). 9 percent don’t believe that recent incidents have affected employees, and 6 percent were unsure.
“All of these are outcomes. We have had talented people leave the job over safety and security concerns especially in cities like San Francisco, LA, and NYC.”
“Fear to come to work at the mall is one of the most common responses. Employees also threaten to quit. Both morale and productivity are impacted as well although that is harder to measure.”
Survey respondents were not shy about verbalizing their thoughts on more, better, more frequent, updated, and more interactive training opportunities. This was a common theme among most respondents. Below is a sampling of the comments and suggestions offered:
“Training needs to be ongoing and interactive. To be able to effectively handle a workplace violence incident you need to know how you will react.”
“Specific workplace violence trainings and new adapted equipment such as bodycam.”
“Ensure training is updated and available on a mobile device. Avoiding disruptive behavior training is critical.”
“More elevated training for leaders. Currently leaders receive the same training as hourly associates.”
“Make training content relevant for our company. Stop using the same video every other company uses and make it conform to a grocery store not an office building.”
Retail is in a constant state of change, directly influenced by the wants and needs of the retail customer. This has greatly accelerated in recent years, inspired by significant advancements in technology and impacted by countless external motivations that affect our day‑to‑day operations. Unfortunately, these influences have also led to some regrettable outcomes as well, with aggression and violence often the result.
Understanding the reasons behind these changes is important, and using this information will lead to more effective, long-term answers. But some solutions can’t wait. Respondents have emphasized some points that we already know, making it clear that there are too many situations where our facilities feel unsafe, and people are getting hurt.
The emphasis on more, better, more frequent, updated, and more interactive training opportunities is a critical message. There’s a need for more focused legislation. There will always be a need for updated and relevant material for the retail employees. But policies, programs, and even legislation will only take us so far. Those efforts still mean very little if not appropriately implemented and emphasized by the leadership in the stores and carried out by those employees on the front lines.
Some companies are doing a tremendous job addressing these issues, building programs, and implementing policies and procedures that support the need for growth and development. Others have opportunities. However, if one thing was made clear, it’s that there is never a finish line.
For those truly interested in making a difference, we would encourage you to review the full report on the Violence in the Retail Workplace survey, paying particular attention to the comments shared by those offering their thoughts and opinions.