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Employers urged to do more to protect customer-facing staff from abuse and assaults

Shocking figures from USDAW’s annual survey of retail workers indicating nine in ten shop works have been verbally abused by a customer, and seven in ten threatened, show starkly the potential level of abuse employees face, and further highlights the need for both legal and workplace protection.

With the introduction of a specific offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker on 24 August 2021 in Scotland, and the possibility of the reintroduction of liability for employers for third party harassment, all UK employers should be prompted to consider what steps they are taking to protect their staff in the workplace.

Violence and abuse towards shop workers long been an issue but, since COVID, the number of incidents has increased significantly.

Shocking figures from USDAW’s annual survey of retail workers indicating nine in ten shop works have been verbally abused by a customer, and seven in ten threatened, show starkly the potential level of abuse employees face, and further highlights the need for both legal and workplace protection.

In 2019 there was an average of 455 incidents a day across the country, a 7% increase on the previous year. The Government has requested that courts increase sentences for violence against front line workers. As of now, only 6% of incidents result in prosecution.

In July leaders of 100 brands including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and IKEA signed an open letter calling for greater legal protection for retail staff stating that the situation “cannot be allowed to get any worse”. One supermarket reported an 76% increase in abuse and a 10% increase in physical attacks during the pandemic, half of which included a weapon of some kind.

Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula. She says “The onus is on the employer to protect their staff; after all, the employee would not be in the position to be abused if it were not for the job they are doing. Employers might consider the effectiveness of their reporting policy, to encourage staff to come forward if something like this happens or introducing one if there isn’t one already. Training for managers on how to deal with these situations, both with the customer and the employee, would be very useful here.

“The impact such an attack could have on an employee’s well-being should not be forgotten. After attacks, staff are too often left struggling with physical injuries as well as severe mental health issues, such as PTSD. Training managers to identify when an employee may be struggling, and offering support, are all angles an employer can look it in approaching this issue holistically. Considering when support is available for affected staff is also going to help.

“Ultimately, an employer cannot always control customers’ behaviour. They can, however, take steps to put their employees in the best position should the worst happen and mitigate any damage that might have otherwise resulted.”

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