According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), retail is one of the highest-risk jobs for workplace violence (WPV). In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that retail employees accounted for 13 percent of all WPV between 2005 and 2009, second only to law enforcement at 19 percent. When broken down further into the annual rate of WPV (the number of violent crimes per 1,000 employees), retail placed fourth overall.
This begs the question: what is it about retail that puts employees at risk? As it turns out, the retail environment often brings together some of the strongest predictors of WPV: working directly with the public, cash handling, and the sale of alcohol all contribute to an increased risk for violence. For some retail verticals, such as convenience or liquor stores, later store hours, fewer staff members, and reduced guardianship also heighten the overall risk of workplace violence. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic also put retail employees in the line of fire for enforcing mask mandates and social distancing guidelines in-store.
With the ever-looming threat of workplace violence, many retailers are taking steps to update and strengthen their WPV policies and programs to better protect their associates. In support of this effort, the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) surveyed our retail members to better understand these policies. In future research, we plan to develop a comprehensive retail “checklist” designed to mitigate the risk of violence in-store.
Defining the Four Types of Workplace Violence
Now that we understand a bit more about the prevalence of violence in retail, it’s important to also understand the different categories of workplace violence: criminal intent, customer/client, worker-on-worker, and personal relationship. Notably, prevention and mitigation strategies will likely differ depending on the type of violence being addressed as each type is unique in its motivations, circumstances, and risk factors. For our purposes, special attention will be placed on worker-on-worker violence as this is perhaps the best opportunity employers have to assess risk and potentially mitigate violent incidents.
Employee-Initiated Workplace Violence
Workplace violence, especially that committed by a current or former employee, is amongst the most sensationalized by the media. This has been further intensified in the past few years with the rise of mass shootings, and more questions are being raised around what employers could and should do to prevent these incidents. Of course, this is easier said than done. The drive to commit violence isn’t always apparent, and oftentimes recognizing red flags requires a deeper and more complex understanding of that person, an understanding that often goes beyond an employer/employee relationship. Therefore, it is recommended that employers continue to cultivate an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting suspicious behaviors and that they are familiarized with common “cues” to violence, including:
- Major and/or stressful life changes
- Extreme mood changes and/or irrational beliefs or ideas
- Sudden and observable changes in overall behavior or appearance
- Blaming others for their problems or mistakes
- Contextually inappropriate fascination with weapons, violence, or prior violent events
- Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
- Challenging or resisting peers and authority figures
- A history of intimidation, verbal abuse, and/or mistreatment of others
- Lying and stealing
- Excessive absenteeism or tardiness
- Holding grudges and/or making threats toward others
- Unrequited, obsessive romantic attention or stalking
Of course, many of these “cues” are not unique to violent individuals. For example, feelings of stress or unfairness, major life events, substance abuse, and observable changes in behavior are also common risk behaviors for suicide. If an employee exhibits suspicious or worrying behaviors, managers should take care to assess each situation on a case‑by‑case basis and, if possible, consider the involvement of a mental health professional or threat assessment team. De-escalation and sensitivity training may also be useful tools if or when the employee is confronted or given disciplinary action.
Finally, it is important to understand how a workplace can impact the risk of workplace violence. According to the National Safe Workplace Institute, characteristics of the high-risk workplace include:
- Chronic labor versus management disputes
- A large number of employee grievances, feelings of unfairness, or injustice
- A large number of workers’ compensation claims, especially for psychological injury
- Authoritarian management style (such as understaffing, excessive demands for overtime)
- Increasing incidence of harassment, threats, and/or assault
- High turnover rates
- High rates of absences, tardiness, illness, or injuries
LPRC Project Overview
In late 2020, the Loss Prevention Research Council designed a survey to better understand current retail WPV policies, the programs in place to prevent and respond to WPV, and the extent to which these programs could be considered evidence based. The survey was administered across the LPRC’s Retail Network, where a total of twenty-two people responded, representing twenty-two unique organizations and over 52,000 stores across North America. General merchandisers, grocers, home improvement stores, pharmacies, and specialty retailers were amongst those who participated in the study.
Results: Workplace Violence Policies and Programs
A vast majority of retailers within this sample (96%) have an official policy specifically outlining processes and procedures for responding to workplace violence incidents. Of those, 95 percent specifically have a “zero‑tolerance clause.” Establishing a zero‑tolerance policy is, in many ways, an employer’s first line of defense against WPV as it sends a clear message that there are consequences for violence. This, however, raises more questions: what exactly is a zero-tolerance policy, and how do retailers define it? The answers aren’t that straightforward. Based on the answers provided by our retail respondents, there was no standard definition of “zero tolerance.” However, they did tend to revolve around three key elements:
- Workplace violence is taken seriously.
- All incidents are investigated.
- All confirmed incidents. would result in some form of disciplinary action.
When broken down further, 27 percent of retailers stated that workplace violence would lead to the termination of that employee, while 23 percent indicated that any disciplinary action would be “up to and including termination.”
Finally, we asked a series of questions about the reporting process for workplace violence. Overwhelmingly, retailers indicated that employees are actively encouraged to report any allegations or incidents of WPV, and this message is reiterated in new hire and annual training, posted materials, and via email or other e-systems. They were also asked about the avenues they provide for reporting. Some of the more common options include an anonymous telephone or hotline (100%), in-person reporting (81.8%), and electronic messaging (72.7%). Dropboxes are much less common in comparison, where only 9 percent of retailers offer them as a method to report WPV.
Results: WPV Training and Education
Perhaps one of the most fundamental yet most important tools in risk mitigation is training. WPV in particular should be a multifaceted program designed to teach employees about the kinds of actions that constitute workplace violence, how to identify potentially violent or dangerous individuals, how to report suspicious behavior, and what to do in the event of a violent incident. While all of the retailers in this study do have specific WPV training, the types of violence covered in these programs varied significantly, where suicide and interpersonal violence tend to be addressed less frequently overall.
The most common delivery method for these trainings is via an electronic learning management system (91%), followed by self-directed (27%) and face-to-face training (23%). For a majority of our responding retailers, training on workplace violence is delivered upon hire and then refreshed on an annual basis. The question then remains: is this the most effective way to educate employees?
In general, training methods can be categorized into three broad categories based on the overarching goal: (1) to deliver information (information based), (2), to demonstrate skills and abilities being trained (demonstration based), and (3) to offer them opportunities to practice the learned skills or abilities (practice based). Of the three methods, practice‑based methods are considered to be the best overall as they allow the trainees to apply their knowledge in a more realistic environment. However, research suggests that a combination of all three categories is likely to create the most effective training programs overall.
Training can be delivered in a variety of ways, such as face‑to‑face, self-paced training modules, virtually, and others. In-person delivery maximizes the ability for the trainer to oversee individual progress, and they have the opportunity to adapt the program based on the progress and response of the group. Furthermore, interpersonal communication is also maximized with in-person trainings, which allows for activities such as skits, role play, and guided practice. However, in-person trainings also limit overall flexibility as compared to virtual. For example, employees are restricted in their ability to go at their own pace, and the availability of archival training materials is limited. Therefore, organizations should adapt their training based on their individual needs.
In terms of training frequency, the theory of cognitive load suggests that learners have finite working memory, and once this is met, new information and the ability to learn and retain new information is significantly hindered or lost entirely. Therefore, it is recommended that longer or more information-dense trainings are delivered over multiple sessions to allow the audience to “reset.” According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), new and reassigned workers should receive an initial orientation session on WPV before being assigned to their duties, and all employees should receive training on an annual basis. For higher-risk settings, refreshers may be needed on a quarterly or even monthly basis.
Results: Risk Assessments and Interventions
It became clear while writing this report that many retailers in this study tend to focus more heavily on reacting to incidents rather than proactively trying to mitigate the risk of WPV. That’s not to say that they aren’t being proactive at all. Most of our retail respondents (82%) utilize background checks as the first step in risk mitigation. Furthermore, a majority also have a designated team in place to respond to WPV threats and employ outside mental health services.
However, there is a critical tool that is largely underutilized: risk assessments. Just as we tend to conduct store-level risk assessments for things like theft and organized retail crime, we can also use a similar method to assess the risk of workplace violence. As a rule, any sort of risk analysis should be grounded in evidence. And the good news is that we have a plethora of research to lean on when trying to understand the strongest predictors of violence. The graph above outlines some of these common risk factors.
To maximize the ability to recognize at-risk employees, assessments would ideally be conducted at four stages: the preemployment stage, during the new-hire process, on an annual or biannual basis, and when responding to a violent incident. The graph above also compares the proportion of retailers who conduct risk assessments during the preemployment stage versus the period after a WPV incident. While it’s clear there is much more emphasis on reacting to violence, this also points to a very positive discovery: a substantial portion of our retail sample already have tools in place to examine risk factors, which means that much of the hard work is already done.
Results: Evidence-Based WPV Policies and Programs
At the heart of the Loss Prevention Research Council is the goal of supporting informed, evidence-based decisions. To maximize WPV policy, retailers must continue to reassess their policies to ensure they are relevant and effective. In the final part of the survey, our responding retailers were asked questions designed to assess whether their policies and programs are evidence based and to better understand the types of evaluations used to examine their overall effectiveness.
The good news is that most retailers are taking steps to continuously improve. Nearly 82 percent of retailers conduct reviews of their WPV prevention strategy following incidents of violence, and 100 percent regularly evaluate the effectiveness and integrity of their security systems. Furthermore, 70 percent of those surveyed said that their WPV prevention and control strategy is grounded in scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, only 37 percent of retailers reported that their policies and programs undergo rigorous scientific trials before and after implementation. Basing policy on scientific evidence is a great start, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will translate perfectly to each organization. Trials allow employers to objectively see how well their policies are working and draw attention to those aspects that may need improvement.
Workplace violence remains an important and challenging issue facing retailers. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), customer service issues are on the rise, including violence. As evidenced by this study, most retailers have policies in place designed to educate employees about identifying and responding to instances of workplace violence. In some ways, however, these trainings appear to lack sufficient information about suicide and interpersonal violence, both of which make up a significant margin of violent incidents occurring in the workplace.
Furthermore, it appears that most organizations have taken a more reactive approach when handling workplace violence. It is recommended that retailers should begin assessing some of the individual-level predictors of violent behavior and other antisocial behavior before and during the employment process. Furthermore, to test the effectiveness of these policies and procedures, we also recommend more rigorous testing across organizations.