Protecting Employees from Dangerous Customers

Introduction

It is no secret that some customers can be difficult to deal with. Poor service or a product whose quality is subpar can make a customer rather angry. Even though the clerk behind the desk or the associate cleaning the aisles may not be directly responsible for causing or contributing to the customer’s ire, that clerk or associate can become the target of the customer’s rage. While in most cases the customer merely needs to “blow off some steam,” sometimes irate customers can be dangerous. Protecting employees is imperative.

protecting employeesOne does not need to search Google long in order to find news stories of customers who were upset at the quality of service or the quality of a product they received from a business and who became violent. The pertinent question for this blog post is, “What steps does a business owner need to take to prevent his or her employees from being hurt by an irate customer?”

Safe and Secure Work Environment

In general, a business owner must provide his or her employees with a safe and secure work environment. An employer cannot deliberately ignore safety hazards or concerns that threaten the safety and well-being of his or her employees, and this includes irate customers. An employer cannot wait, either, until an incident of workplace violence takes place before taking precautionary measures: If the employer is aware of circumstances or situations that tend to show customer violence is a real threat in the workplace, then the employer should take appropriate measures to prevent any such incidents from occurring. Some employers have done this by:

  • Teaching associates de-escalation techniques: It is helpful and effective for associates to know how to talk to difficult or angry customers in order to learn the source of the customer’s dissatisfaction and come up with ways to resolve the customer’s issue. Teaching associates these de-escalation techniques can be a very simple and cost-effective way for protecting employees in the workplace.
  • Secure work areas: In industries where a store associate may be at an increased risk for violence – bank tellers, check cashing associates, pawn store clerks, etc. – the employer may need to construct a safe work area for the employee to perform his or her job duties. Depending on the precise type of business and its location, history of crime, etc., this can include having clerks work behind a metal cage (as in a casino), behind bulletproof glass (as in some banks), or simply creating additional “space” between the customer and the employee (as in some retail stores).
  • Providing security: Where the employer has reason to know that customers are perhaps more prone to commit violence against its employees (such as a check cashing store that has been violently robbed in the past), the employer may need to provide additional protections for its employees like providing armed security guards. Security guards (armed or otherwise) may be necessary if the business is located in a high-crime neighborhood, even if the business itself has never experienced any criminal activity. The extent of the security presence and whether that security presence ought to be armed is a determination business owners will need to make on a case-by-case basis.

Employers Cannot Prevent All Workplace Violence

Employers cannot – and are not expected to – prevent all incidents of workplace violence carried out by irate customers. However, employers are required to take reasonable measures for protecting employees, in light of their circumstances – the type of business they operate, the type of customer they typically deal with, the neighborhood in which they operate, etc. – that are designed to provide their workers with a reasonably safe and secure working environment. Always consult experienced employment attorneys to draft legally sound workplace policies.