Keoghs Insight

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Hayley Riach

Hayley Riach

Partner

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Hidden Danger - Violence in Retail

Blogs11/02/2021

The latest article in our Taking Stock series covers a key concern for the retail sector - violence in the workplace.

With the Government urging retailers and supermarkets in particular to enforce the wearing of face coverings, and reports suggesting the pandemic has seen a large rise in verbal abuse, threats and assaults on retail staff, we examine how retailers can balance government guidance with protecting workers. We also take a look at dealing with violence in the workplace to reduce the risk of assault claims.

On the rise

Although Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue, tackling violence against retail staff has been a focus for both retailers and the government in recent years. Industry initiatives such as the Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign spearheaded by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) and the Co-op have paved the way for government action. This has led to the introduction of the Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill 2019-21 in March 2020 and the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry examining whether a new offence related to aggravated assaults for retail workers is required, and whether the Government is doing enough.

Despite being recognised as Covid-19 key workers, USDAW reports that on average, retail staff were being verbally abused, threatened or assaulted every week during the pandemic, compared with once a fortnight in 2019, showing that Covid-19 has unfortunately only served to heighten the position, putting the spotlight on whether retailers are doing enough to protect their employees.

What is work-related violence?

  • Physical violence, including kicking, spitting, hitting or pushing, as well as more extreme violence with weapons.
  • Verbal abuse, including shouting, swearing or insults; racial or sexual abuse, or threats and intimidation.

Concerns

Protecting staff is two-fold for retailers.  It is about doing right by their employees but equally protecting themselves from claims further down the line”  (Kari Hansen, Retail Lead, Keoghs)

Striking the balance between following government guidance and doing the right thing is not easy.  Customers have become agitated by restrictions, queues, and limits on stock, resulting in some directing their frustrations at public-facing employees working hard to serve their communities.

The enforcement of face coverings is a perfect example. Ensuring policies and procedures are in place for how to approach customers who aren’t wearing a mask is key. Yet reports from retailers indicate that even though policies are well documented and made clear to the public through in-store and public campaigns, this is not enough to prevent retail workers suffering verbal or physical assaults.

Fortunately we have not seen an increase in employers’ liability assault claims in the last year, but the issue of violence in the retail workplace has rightly received a significant amount of TV air-time in recent months. This has given savvy claimant solicitors a clear claim type to focus on against retailers and some, along with claims management companies, are already targeting retailers for assault-type claims. It appears an increase in these claims is on the horizon. 

All too frequently instances of violence result in shop workers suffering physical injuries along with mental health consequences such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in severe cases. This gives an added dimension to assault claims. Not only are we likely to see increased volumes, but they will also be amplified in value - any psychological injury is based on subjective reporting and attracts a higher award of damages. At a time when the whole world is in a heightened state of anxiety, psychological elements to claims are going to become more frequent.

What can you do?

Taking action to prevent incidents of violence happening will not only protect retailers’ employees but will also reduce the risk of claims being made by those employees. It should also assist in preventing valid claims from customers who feel the way they were dealt with in-store was unfair, humiliating or even discriminatory – claims that clearly have significant ramifications for brand as well as financially.

“Since the turn of the year, retailers’ customer services teams have been swamped with complaints from customers who feel aggrieved that they have been asked about wearing a face covering in store. Some contend that it is an act of discrimination”.  (Kari Hansen, Retail Lead, Keoghs)

Our top five tips can help you protect retail employees and increase defensibility.

  1. Act before violence occurs - Risk assessments should be in place to determine whether violence is a problem for your employees and business, and how matters can be improved. Individual store risk assessments should be considered as these will take into account local factors and those specific to a particular store such as crime rating in the area and number of previous incidents of violence. Be sure to consult your employees as they will often have better insight as to what the potential problems are and may even have ideas for how to solve them.
  2. Install physical controls - This includes deterrents such as CCTV footage in high risk areas or screening by sales points, as well as items such as panic buttons and security communication systems.
  3. Put up warning signs - Make customers aware of what measures are in place in-store and that violence will not be tolerated.
  4. Provide training - Customer services training in dealing with difficult and challenging behaviour is a must, together with instruction on escalation processes.
  5. Refresh training regularly - Annual refreshers may be appropriate in most circumstances however with prevalent issues such as the enforcement of face coverings, consideration should be given to more frequent reminders, for example during weekly store briefings or team meetings.

Simply doing their job

Behind each incident of violence is a person who was simply doing their job. In such circumstances doing the right thing by your employee is paramount. Invoking early rehabilitation could be a worthwhile consideration.  It would support the employee in coming back to work and also demonstrate that you are a caring retailer and employer. Ultimately that can influence whether the employee makes a claim in the future and, if they do, helps to keep the value of the claim to a minimum in the hope that treatment resolves psychological symptoms swiftly.

Conclusion

It is not clear if and when assault type claims from retail workers will start to appear or how many we will see, but we will continue to track this over the coming 12 months. What is clear is that retailers can only try and prevent violence in the workplace by being prepared and, if things do go wrong, being supportive of employees.