By Patrick Howarth, head of Retail and Consumer
This article first appeared in Retail Sector magazine on September 10, 2019.
A COUPLE of weeks ago we at Foot Anstey released the results of a survey we conducted with Survation into the issue of harassment in the retail sector.
Some of the headline results are presented here. I hope you find the time to review. In some respects they make for quite difficult reading.
When we were choosing the questions one thing I was very keen to know more about was the level of threat faced by staff from customers.
We found almost a third (31%) of men and almost a quarter of women (23%) in retail have experienced physically aggressive or violent behaviour at their current employer. That translates to around 783,000 UK retail staff.
The great majority - 78% - of that aggression came from customers, with 65% from customers alone and a further 13% saying they have experienced it from both customers and colleagues.
One respondent said: “I have witnessed it more from customers to employees. They can be abusive and aggressive when not receiving the answer they expect.”
Others tell of frequent sexually loaded customer comments, or customers trying to kiss them. One wrote: "I have experienced customers who would come in just to see me even though it made me uncomfortable and I asked them not to."
It's something employers don’t think about as much. But they should, not least because in many ways it's harder to deal with. Front line staff need – and are demanding – protection so any resolution to the harassment issue needs to reflect that.
Employers have a duty to provide staff with an environment which is safe. We're probably most familiar with this in the construction industry which has, in certain quarters, embraced health and safety to an extent which would amaze previous generations. But safety is a standard which applies to all staff and retail is no exception.
The law in this area is complex and I do feel for good employers who may feel a little helpless. No one encourages customers to be aggressive.
But even so, retailers who do not follow the best advice expose themselves to action under employment law from staff who can claim their safety was put second to their employer's convenience.
HR teams can be overwhelmed by support requests from managers who do not effectively deal with harassment, or perhaps do not recognise it when they see it. Bringing in expert training for your management teams, helping them to recognise problems and know their legal responsibilities is a strong first step.