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What more can be done to protect staff from abusive customers?

2 min read

By Patrick Howarth, Alastair Nuttall

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"The customer is always right" and similar adages have been at the core of the culture of consumer facing businesses for generations.

César Ritz, of Ritz hotel fame, was apparently an early adopter, telling his staff in the 1800s: "If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked."

I am sure we have all seen plenty of internet memes and articles featuring Jeff Bezos' quotes about customer obsession as the key to Amazon's success.

The problem is the customer isn’t always right.

This is backed up by the data.

A new retail sector study by Foot Anstey of over 1,000 retail workers has shown a rise in cases of verbal, physical or sexual harassment in the workplace, in part sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Half of respondents (50%) noted a rise in harassment during the pandemic. In addition, the majority believed the lifting of many restrictions exacerbated, not diminished, the level of harassment.

Overall the survey found that 61% had experienced some form of offensive behaviour while working for their current employer. This is damaging mental health with the impact for victims manifesting as stress (45%), anxiety (43%) and a loss of self-esteem (19%).

Inappropriate behaviour could come from either colleagues or customers, but customers were much more likely to be guilty of physically aggressive or violent behaviour.

As we look to the next few months, the pandemic, recruitment challenges, supply shortages, and rising prices may well be creating the perfect conditions for increasingly fractious relationships between employees and customers.

Employers want to do the right thing

We discussed our survey findings at the General Counsel Retail Week summit and have had follow-up conversations with many of our clients in retail and other consumer-facing businesses. It is clear from these conversations and our day to day advisory work that employers are serious about doing business with purpose and acting responsibly, sustainably, and with kindness.  They recognise they must balance their customer experience priorities with their duty to protect their employees from harassment, mental and physical harm, bullying and discrimination. Indeed, most have extensive policies, procedures and training.

But the status quo isn’t working

But our survey findings suggest that, while employers like retailers have taken many steps to address the issue, there is still more that can be done to improve employee perceptions around the level of support available.

In our survey 65% of shopworkers believed there are not enough laws in place to protect shopworkers. Only 57% said they were confident in their employer’s ability to handle grievances, compared to 37% who said they were not confident. 27% of respondents believed their employer does not care about protecting staff from inappropriate behaviour.

New ideas

There is a disconnect between the efforts of employers and on-the-ground employee experiences. Our survey results suggest it is time for new ideas and solutions in addition to being better and more consistent in tackling these issues using the existing mechanisms employers have in place. 

We have been thinking deeply both about current laws and the levers available to employers to protect their staff.

We are working up a range of ideas and actions which can help responsible employers safeguard employees while still delivering brilliant experiences for customers.

We will be sharing our ideas soon which we hope will bring about positive change. If there are thoughts on this you would like to share, or it's an area you are looking at already do get in touch.