There’s no question that the abuse of frontline staff across retail and service industries is on the rise. The stresses associated with Covid-19, continuing lockdowns, job losses and economic uncertainty have piled on the pressure.
This means that the people working for you may need extra support. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to put systems in place to help protect your team in case of verbal or physical attack, and to help them process incidents afterwards. What may not to be a serious incident may affect someone deeply.
Even if you have been lucky enough to avoid incidents in the past, that may not continue to be the case. Research from Retail NZ and the University of Otago found that 85 percent of frontline staff in food service and retail stores had been verbally abused by a customer, and 14 percent had been physically assaulted.
First, as a team leader, you need to let staff know that you support them and care about their safety. Communication is key.
When you’re at work and you feel that the company is behind you, you feel more empowered,” says Matau Stewart.
Matau is a Z safety and wellbeing advisor who used to work in retail and understands how confronting these kinds of incidents can be. “We used to talk about daily [incidents], now retailers are talking about hourly,” he says.
Make it clear that abusive behaviour is not acceptable to you and you will not tolerate customers mistreating your staff. This sets expectations for the public and your own people. Displaying this Mutual Kindness poster is one way you can help communicate your expectations with customers.
Z Energy has been working on how best to support frontline staff for more than two years, through the We’ve Got Your Back programme, and acknowledges there is much work yet to be done. There were 1500 incidents described as “high impact” across Z’s 198 sites in the first quarter of this year, ranging from physical assault to racial slurs.
These incidents might be triggered by a fuel pump not working properly or a misunderstanding with the payment software. Sometimes customers come on site already wound up by something completely unrelated to Z or its staff. The incident reports make sobering reading.
“It really exposes what the site teams go through as people,” says Martin Foye, Z’s head of retail operation. “They’re just trying to do the best they can, navigating through the world as best they can, like everyone else.”
Unfortunately, racial slurs are often a part of the abuse staff encounter. In 2019 Z signed the NZ Retailers Against Racism Pledge, a positive step for you to consider in your business, if you haven’t already.
“We’re committed to making a difference and we’re committed to looking after our own, but it's a much bigger issue than Z,” says Martin. “By supporting others in the wider community we think that will ultimately have the greatest impact.”