Defending staff against abusive customers

As the Christmas shopping frenzy begins, Michael Ryley outlines the conflict resolution strategies employers should adopt to protect customer-facing employees

When frontline staff are faced with vexatious customers, the stakes can be high. Although aggressive customer interaction is rare, a range of situations that put employee health and safety at risk could arise. Security staff and employees of passenger transport operators, for example, may be targets of physical abuse, while those manning call centres may be exposed to serious verbal abuse. The right strategy can prepare staff for these challenging situations, while ensuring the employer isn’t left exposed to claims from employees on the receiving end of this behaviour.

The responsibility to provide a safe working environment falls squarely at the feet of employers. It is incumbent on them to assess the risk to their employees and to ensure appropriate steps are in place to mitigate the risk of their employees’ physical or mental wellbeing being harmed while performing their duties.

The level of risk is largely dependent on the nature of the customer’s grievance and their temperament. When a customer becomes abusive or threatening while a complaint is being addressed, the danger to the welfare of the worker handling the case intensifies. Whereas most complaints are resolved quickly and amicably, some customers may act in an unacceptable manner for no apparent reason. An effective conflict resolution strategy will assist in mitigating these risks by preparing staff for such extreme circumstances.

Here are three ways to help implement a conflict resolution framework that protects employees and safeguards employers from reputational damage and liability.

1. Have a clear process in place to identify and expedite challenging customer grievances  

Consumer-facing businesses have to handle customer complaints regularly. A conflict resolution strategy must separate the innocuous, day-to-day grievances that are resolved easily from those that pose a threat to staff on the receiving end.

This involves recording instances when customers have been aggressive in the past, so they can be easily identified in the future, and putting in place a clear process to enable frontline staff to raise concerns with their superiors if they feel their personal wellbeing is at risk. Employers must not be slow to provide support in such circumstances.

The next phase of the process is dependent on the business. Usually an incrementally severe process of restrictions will be imposed on the vexatious customer, barring them from making contact until a decision on their case has been made. In extreme cases, it may be appropriate to withdraw staff involvement altogether, to contact the police or even to take legal action. The important thing is that this expedition process is transparent and that everyone understands their responsibilities.

2. Deliver effective and targeted training

Comprehensive, regular training sessions are the most effective way to prepare employees for challenging customer interactions. Any programme should cover a broad range of situations and demonstrate to staff how to handle unreasonable or threatening behaviour, while also making it clear how they should reach out for support if it is needed. There are a number of ways to achieve this, but – whatever the delivery method – employers must provide realistic training scenarios that equip employees to handle difficult situations when they are exposed to a live environment.

3. Cultivate a positive workplace culture

A conflict resolution strategy that protects staff will only work if employers promote an environment where workers feel comfortable highlighting threatening situations or interactions. The last thing any business wants is a member of their team feeling uneasy about reporting a vexatious customer.

Management and HR teams need to engage the full buy-in of the business to make conflict resolution a success. Good communication, a clear policy and effective governance will create a culture where staff feel safe and where complaints, whatever their nature, are handled effectively.

Michael Ryley is a partner and employment law specialist at Weightmans