Dealing with abusive and violent customers is a growing concern in Australian workplaces, especially in the health domain. This has been the subject of previous Agilient blog articles that may also be of interest, previous articles can be found here and here.
So, what are the signs that a situation is escalating into workplace violence and what is the best way to avoid or deal with aggressive customers?
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Code defines workplace violence as:
“Any action, incident or behaviour that departs from reasonable conduct in which a person is assaulted, threatened, harmed, injured in the course of, or as a direct result of, his or her work. Internal workplace violence is that which takes place between workers, including managers and supervisors.
External workplace violence is that which takes place between workers (and managers and supervisors) and any other person present at the workplace.”
These ILO Code definitions reflect the approach taken to this aspect of occupational violence in Australia. A current risk management guide for customer service providers, published jointly by Comcare and Centrelink, the Commonwealth’s income support and related services agency, adopts a much broader definition of ‘customer aggression’ in the following terms:
“Any unacceptable hostile behaviour towards customer service staff that creates an intimidating, frightening or offensive situation, and/or, adversely affects work performance.”
Preparation is a critical step in addressing and putting a stop to workplace violence. In many cases, the likelihood that customers will become violent is very high. As such, in discharging a duty of care (as defined in various OHS Acts), it is important for employers to have done the following:
- Have in place a zero-tolerance approach towards customer violence.
- Conducted a thorough threat and risk assessmentto contextualise, quantify and treat the identified risk scenarios.
- Developed policies and procedures for managing workplace violence.
- Have in place security solutions such as duress alarms and CCTV coverage – linking back to response capabilities (such as a control room or patrolling guard). In some cases consider providing safe rooms for staff to retreat to if they feel at risk.
- Consider access control and segregating service areas and introducing security zones in the area where customer interactions occur.
- Consider implementing crime prevention through environmental design (CEPTED) principles. Also, make sure that the environment is calming rather than likely to induce aggressive behaviour.
- Have a guard trained and experienced in dealing with aggressive (and if necessary violent) customers.
- Train staff in dealing with aggressive customers.
- Test systems by running scenario-based exercises related to dealing with aggressive customers.
- Have in place a reporting system to accurately record the prevalence and details of customer violence – have this feed into continuous improvement processes.
When dealing with customers in a hostile workplace environment, it is critical for staff to recognise early signs of aggression such as:
- Raising the tone of voice;
- Aggressive enquiries or demands;
- Agitation and intense frustration;
- Aggressive posture;
- Pointing or stabbing of fingers;
- Stomping feet;
- Flushed or extremely pale face;
- Clenched teeth and jaws;
- Clenched fists and general muscle tension;
- Invasion of your personal space;
- Banging/pushing furniture; and
- Facial muscle tension, furrowed brow, tight and quivering lips.
Obviously, if the customer is drunk, drug affected or showing the signs of mental health issues, it is more likely that an exchange will deteriorate more rapidly into an aggressive or violent situation.
By being aware of the potential for aggression, it may be possible to take steps to prevent it and avoid episodes of workplace violence all together. In most cases this should be defined in the organisation policy and procedures.
Here are a few tips for avoiding or defusing workplace violence:
- Try not to take hostility personally.
- Be aware of your own reactions to aggression and try to remain calm. If you respond aggressively, you will reinforce the other person’s behaviour.
- Try to recognise and defuse the aggression as early as possible by showing empathy. It is generally much easier to avoid the build-up of aggression than to calm things down once anger has flared.
- Listen to what the other person has to say and accept, recognise and emphasise positive aspects of what is being said. Show respect through polite formalities, although aim to work towards familiarity.
- Demonstrate understanding and empathy with the person through reflecting, clarifying and summarising his/her thoughts and feelings. Avoid any expression of power, for example, “You must calm down.”
- Personalise your communications. Be on a first name basis with the customer. Acknowledge their feelings and needs, and try to satisfy any reasonable desires the customer may have.
- Don’t confront the customer. Nobody likes to be confronted at the best of times.
- Encourage the aggressor to take responsibility for his/her own behaviour and to direct it into more creative or positive outlets, e.g., by making a written complaint rather than verbally criticising someone or an organisation.
- Be aware of your own body language and present a non-threatening, open stance.
- Do not invade ‘personal space’ unless you are applying first aid. Move slowly and steadily.
- Keep other clients or passers-by from becoming involved in the situation.
- Be calm and speak slowly and clearly while keeping communication short, simple and to the point.
- Avoid long-winded explanations. Concentration spans are short when people are becoming aggressive. Be patient, and repeat information where necessary.
- If a person does become aggressive ensure that you have an exit strategy in case you need to protect yourself. Call for help from other staff members or guards. If you have a duress alarm use it.
- Call the police if the situation is beyond your control.
There is no substitute for proper planning and preparation for dealing with aggressive and violent customers in a workplace. It is necessary to have done your homework before a situation arises. If dealt with on an ad-hoc basis workplace violence will most likely result in serious injury to staff and be a gross dereliction of an employer’s duty to care under OHS legislation.
Some employers only consider one or two aspects of managing customer aggression such as training or CCTV. It is critical that a holistic approach is taken to avoid these situations in the first place and if they do happen, handling them with effective and well-exercised techniques is essential.
Agilient offers a range of solutions for dealing with aggressive customers in the workplace. Contact us today if you need any assistance with your customer aggression strategy.
The Agilient Team