Managing the risks of customer behaviour

During the festive season, retailers need to pay particular attention to specific hazards. In this case, the hazards and risks associated with dysfunctional customer behaviour.

It’s been a busy lead up to Christmas for retailers, and more so with the added task of ensuring a COVIDSafe retail environment and experience for staff and customers. While retailers are dealing with the Christmas rush and implementing COVIDSafe Plans, it’s crucial retailers also focus their attention on identifying and managing other workplace hazards, particularly those that may spike in risk during the festive season. A specific hazard that requires particular attention due to the increased risk during this time, is customer misbehaviour, or dysfunctional customer behaviour.  

What is dysfunctional customer behaviour?

The icareTM Respect and Resilience in Retail and Fast-food factsheet defines dysfunctional customer behaviour as behaviour towards an employee during a service interaction that goes against what is socially accepted.  Dysfunctional customer behaviour occurs across a spectrum from low to high intensity actions:

How prevalent is dysfunctional customer behaviour in retail?

A survey of 1,000 employees in retail and fast food, conducted by the SDA in 2017**, found:

  • More than 85% of respondents have been subjected to verbal abuse from a customer in the last 12 months
  • 24.35% of respondents subjected to verbal abuse say it happens every week
  • 14.49% of respondents have experienced physical violence from a customer
  • 63% of workers said abusive customers had generally been known to them
  • 33.54% of respondents said they had felt threatened by a customer 1-2 times in the last 12 months.
  • 11.62% of respondents said the incidents of customer abuse or violence involved behaviour by a customer that was sexual in nature.

Dysfunctional customer behaviour and duty of care

As explained in the icareTM Respect and Resilience report, exposure to dysfunctional customer behaviour can affect an individual’s physical, psychological and social health.  

As exposure to such behaviour can impact a workers health and safety, it is a work health and safety issue that needs to be identified and managed by retailers.Retailers have a duty of care under work health and safety law to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers. This duty of care requires retailers to eliminate risks to health and safety. If this is not reasonably practicable, risks must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

If retailers do not manage the risks associated with dysfunctional customer behaviour, not only is there a failure to meet the primary duty of care owed by a retail business to it’s workers, but it is likely to have many direct and indirect costs including lower morale, reduced productivity, absenteeism and workers compensation costs.  

What action can be taken by retailers to manage the risks of dysfunctional customer behaviour?

The ARA has addressed ‘workplace violence and aggression’ management in previous articles, specifically: ‘The season for retailers to manage the risks of work-related violence’ (17 February 2019), and A safe Christmas in retail’ (14 October 2020). These articles provide retailers with information about managing the risks of work-related violence and aggression, or as we refer to it in this article ‘dysfunctional customer behaviour’.

Retailers are encouraged to read and consider the actions recommended in icare’s Respect & Resilience Report, which provide four areas of opportunity for employers to take action:

1. Modifications to physical aspects, tailored to the workplace
2. Increased workplace support
3. Specialised and focused customer-service training
4. Incident reaction training

In preparation for this article, the ARA reached out to WorkSafe Victoria to gather information about what the regulator expects of retailers when it comes to managing the risks of customer misbehaviour in the workplace.  We posed three key questions and received the following guidance from WorkSafe.

Q&A with WorkSafe Victoria

[ARA] What does an Inspector look for when visiting a retailer, to ensure there are adequate systems and training in place to manage customer misbehaviour?

[WorkSafe Victoria] During a workplace visit an Inspector will discuss all aspects of inappropriate workplace behaviour, which include work-related violence and customer aggression. The Inspector will focus on the system in place at the workplace to ensure an employee is safe should there be an incident of customer aggression, including: policies; procedures; training records; incident reporting mechanisms and investigation methods. Inspectors may also discuss the tasks undertaken, the design of the workplace, and other relevant factors which could impact employee safety.

[ARA] What should retailers be aware of when managing the risks of customer misbehaviour?

[WorkSafe Victoria] Retailers should be aware that within their workplace there may be multiple factors that could influence the risk of work-related violence and customer aggression. It is important that employers consider factors such as the design of the workplace, training of employees and level of support available when assessing risks in their workplace. Examples of control measures which could be implemented include:

  • Design of workplace (Safe Design)
  • Building is secure, maintained and fit for purpose
  • Physical separation of employees and customers – protective screen/barrier
  • Adequate lighting and visibility in the workplace
  • Security measures in place – CCTV, alarms, communication system
  • Training
  • Training procedure developed
  • Training schedule and records maintained
  • Induction for all new employees includes training on managing customer aggression
  • Support
  • Supervision available for inexperienced employees
  • System in place to report and investigate incidents of customer aggression
  • Alternative duties available for employees if required

[ARA] Is there a self-assessment/checklist a retailer can refer to and use to determine if they are adequately managing the risk of customer aggression?

[WorkSafe Victoria] In October 2020 WorkSafe published the Work-related violence: A guide for employers guidance document which contains information on managing and controlling the risk of work-related violence. The guidance also contains a work-related violence risk control measures selection tool. This tool provides examples on control measures that could be implemented in situations where elimination of the risk is not reasonably practicable or successful. Although it is not retail-specific it contains relevant information that can be applied to a retail scenario.

The complete Work-related violence guidance can be found here.

The risk control measures selection tool can be found here. 

What additional resources are available to retailers?

  • Health and safety regulator guidance material

Retailers are encouraged to look to their local health and safety regulator website for guidance on how to manage work-related violence and aggression. WorkSafe WA for example, provides a great resource – Aggression in the workplace: Risk management toolkit which includes a risk assessment tool retailers can adopt to help meet their legal obligations to manage risks associated with aggression in the workplace. 

The ARA is looking to launch a FREE (or low cost) course SIRXCEG008 – Manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers course. As a registered training organisation, the ARA Retail Institute, is now in discussion with state-level training departments to ensure this vital skill-set is listed on the funded course list. We hope any fee-contribution considered will be low or no cost to students.

This course has been established in recognition of the impact of aggression and traumatic events in the workplace, factors that increase the risk to work-related stress. This Nationally Recognised skill set is designed for all customer facing workers in the retail and hair and beauty industry sectors.

You’re invited to complete the expression of interest via Survey Monkey.

Topics covered:

  • How to identify potentially disruptive customers
  • How to implement actions to defuse and de-escalate potential conflict
  • How to manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers
  • How to document and report incident
  • How to manage the personal impacts of disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customer behaviour

Course structure:

  • Self-paced pre-reading of course materials
  • Interactive online delivery facilitated by a retail specialist trainer
  • Practical demonstration in simulated environment/workplace
  • Upon completion, learner will receive a Statement of Attainment in SIRXCEG008 as part of the SIRSS0022 (Manage disrespectful, aggressive or abusive customers)

Potential time commitment:

  • 1-2 hours pre-reading
  • 3-4 hours online theory training
  • 1-hour simulated skill assessment/practical demonstration

*Respect and Resilience in Retail and Fast-food: Approaches to reduce the incidence and employee impacts of dysfunctional customer behaviour, 2019, **As at 30 Nov 2018, based on Policy Renewal Year 2017 policies.

**Survey results highlight abuse towards retail and fast food workers is epidemic, 2017,

The material within this update is provided for general information and educational purposes in summary form on topics which are current when it is first published. The content does not constitute legal advice or recommendations and should not be relied upon as such.



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