Nine in 10 shop workers verbally abused by customers during lockdown, poll finds

Survey of retail staff also reveals one in 10 were physically assaulted at work last year, with enforcing Covid restrictions the main cause of incidents

The vast majority of frontline shop workers have reported seeing an increase in the amount of abuse received from customers since the start of the Covid pandemic, as experts say HR needs to be more proactive in protecting employees.

In a poll of 2,700 UK retail workers by union Usdaw, nearly nine in 10 (88 per cent) said they experienced verbal abuse during 2020, compared to one in seven (70 per cent) in 2019, with customers unhappy about Covid restrictions cited as the main cause of incidents.

Similarly, three in five (60 per cent) shop workers reported being threatened by a customer last year, compared to two in five (40 per cent) in 2010. One in 10 (9 per cent) also said they were assaulted in 2020, compared to 5 per cent in 2019.

A lack of stock was cited as the most common trigger for abuse from customers by a quarter (25 per cent) of shop workers. This was followed by enforcing social distancing rules (24 per cent), asking customers to queue to get into the store (17 per cent) and asking customers to wear face coverings (15 per cent).

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said HR needed to play a proactive role in protecting retail employees. "It’s shocking to hear the kind of abuse that some people in the retail sector have experienced. Over the past year, shop workers have been a vital part of the national response to the pandemic, and they deserve recognition and thanks,” she said.

Stuff said HR needed to be proactive in creating an expectation of dignity and respect among members of staff, and ensuring managers are trained in how to communicate in stores and “deal firmly and appropriately” with any incidents that may arise, and provide all workers with access to health and wellbeing support such as an employee assistance programme.

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“Working with recognised trained unions on these issues will help to embed policies and ensure they are taken seriously,” Suff added.

The Usdaw survey found that two-fifths of employees (38 per cent) wanted more support from management and a quarter (24 per cent) wanted businesses to ban offenders from the store, while 14 per cent wanted more security staff.

Liz Cotton, partner at TLT, said employers had a legal duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees, and suggested a number of steps businesses could take to deal with the threat of abuse against shop workers. These included undertaking a proper risk assessment, providing training in dealing with aggravated customers, putting signage up in stores and making sure staff are not left to work alone in high-risk areas.

“Having the right levels of security on the shop floor can also help deter would-be offenders, and if incidents occur mean action can be taken immediately to remove the perpetrators,” Cotton added.

She also warned that the risk of customer abuse extended beyond shop floor roles and has long been an issue for customer service centre staff. “Again, training and counselling – and even things like resilience training and measures to boost team morale so that people don’t feel like they’re suffering alone – can really help employees,” she said.

Usdaw has also called for legislation to protect retail staff. Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the union, said: “Our latest survey results clearly show the scale of the appalling violence, threats and abuse faced by shop workers, and demonstrate the need for a ‘protection of shop workers’ law.”

“The UK government has persistently opposed new legislation, offering little more than sympathy and objecting to the Alex Norris protection of shop workers bill in the House of Commons,” he added, referring to the assaults on retail workers bill submitted to parliament by Labour MP Alex Norris. The bill was introduced in March last year but has still not had its second reading in parliament.

Specific legislation to protect shop workers has already been passed by the Scottish government.

Tamara Hill, employment policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, also called for the introduction of legislation to protect shop workers. HR had a “key role to play” in supporting staff in the face of rising violence, she said, but added: “The government has a role in reducing violence altogether by introducing new legislation to provide the protection that our colleagues need.”