Violence at work: When should you step in?

Any kind of abuse towards employees can cause lasting physical and psychological injuries

Violence at work: When should you step in?

While being vital to the economy, retail staff in New Zealand have seen a 600% increase in abuse and violence towards them by shoppers during the lockdown period earlier this year.

Among the incidents reported since COVDI-19 have been punching, spitting and intentionally coughing on employees.

This is especially significant given abuse by customers can cause lasting physical, psychological and social injuries.

For employers, having employees who are frightened, distressed and injured means low workplace morale, higher costs due to absenteeism, and more sick leave and staff turnover.

And the financial impact is huge, as a study conducted by Retail NZ and the University of Otago showed that retailers are spending around $514 million on crime prevention annually.

It also found 85% of front-line employees in food and retail stores have been verbally abused by a customer – and 14% have been victims of physical violence.

According to Gallagher Bassett, the act of violence against workers and the ensuing emotional impact will likely also influence their motivation to return to the workplace, due to the concern that another incident may arise.

For Laura Bradley, senior business development manager at Gallagher Bassett, the time has come to recognise this issue and provide appropriate support to retail workers.

Read more: Want better output? Then focus on the safety of your team

“Research has shown time and time again that people typically underestimate the impact of customer abuse on retail workers, particularly verbal abuse,” she told HRD.

Workplace violence is any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.

These acts of violence cover a broad range of actions that cause a risk to health and safety such as:

  • Indecent physical contact
  • Assault (including spitting, shoving, grabbing, throwing objects and punching
  • Intimidating behaviour that causes a fear of violence (including any of the above)

Bradley told HRD that to address workplace violence, any customer service environment should have a plan for managing customer abuse.

This includes strategies to reduce both the frequency and severity of abuse incidents.

“Every workplace is different but a good plan should consider looking at physical elements of the workplace and how these can be modified to reduce opportunities for abuse,” said Bradley.

“It should also have increased support for customer service workers, specialised customer-service training and incident reaction training to support retail workers when these situations do occur.”

Read more: Employer fined for failing to control safety risks

Aside from the injury risk, employees also need to be trained on how to deal with these situations to properly avoid a defamation claim.

Retail employees should also be trained about how to avoid problems of “implicit bias” when calling the police, according to Gallagher Bassett.

Workers should also not use any force or threats of force to eject trespassers and avoid any touching of trespassers - no matter how slight - unless it is truly necessary for self-defence or the defence of others.

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