The UK government’s Retail Crime Action Plan represents a welcome but long overdue introduction of more robust measures to protect retail workers. However, this alone won’t eradicate the epidemic of aggressive behaviour against staff.
Aggressive customer behaviour comes in different forms that can be placed broadly under three pillars – physical violence, verbal abuse and inappropriate contact or remarks. While there seems to be a good understanding of how physical abuse is unacceptable, verbal abuse and inappropriate behaviour are considered grey areas, with many workers considering a degree of verbal abuse as ‘part of the job’.
We saw a sharp increase in all these behaviours during Covid-19. Following the pandemic, research conducted by Alliance Manchester Business School, in partnership with the Health & Safety Executive and the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety & Health in Germany, found frontline workers such as those in retail often experienced repeated aggressive acts from members of the public.
One way to explain this is through the power asymmetries that exist between frontline staff and customers. The dominant social narrative, that “the customer is always right”, considers the customer as more powerful and puts the worker in a subservient position, which invites more hostility towards shop staff.
These behaviours have become normalised and dealing with them is now considered ‘part of the job’. As a result, workers may not consider some of the less overt but equally dangerous forms of aggression, particularly verbal abuse, and inappropriate acts, severe enough to report. They may also be concerned about being labelled a problematic employee if they make multiple complaints about issues considered to be ‘trivial’. However, this is more likely to lead to repeat behaviour that can create a ‘drip effect’, accumulating over time and severely harming employees’ mental health.
Retailers have a duty of care towards their employees, and must create a culture in which staff feel confident speaking up about all types of aggression. Reporting is key because it gives employers and professional bodies an idea of the scope of the problem and can help them to identify and address factors causing that aggression.
In some cases, this is already obvious. Hostile behaviour is often borne out of frustration, so taking additional measures to prevent long queues and waiting times during the busiest periods, for example, can help to protect workers – something to keep in mind as the festive season approaches.
When such episodes occur, managers should encourage employees to report the issue and support the coping process. Completing reports can be stressful, so taking these complaints seriously, being empathetic, and showing a willingness to act can make a real difference. Managers should implement reporting systems that are accessible to all employees and allow for reporting to be done during work hours, so employees don’t have to work overtime to do so.
Staff are not the only ones to benefit from better policies and practices. Employers also gain as employees are less likely to take sickness absence or quit, thereby reducing costs – which is more important than ever at a time when staff shortages are well publicised.
The Retail Crime Action Plan is an acknowledgement of the severity of the problem. It provides an overarching framework to tackle retail crime, but it should also be a prompt for retailers taking more measures in their stores to protect staff.