Managing customer misbehaviour

Following our Respect & Resilience Program we’ve built resources to help employers support their frontline workers, during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Shop assistant and customer wearing masks during a pandemic

Respect & Resilience

icare, in conjunction with Griffith University, has developed the Respect & Resilience Program to provide workplaces with the knowledge and awareness required to help minimise the impact of customer incivility on employees, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

A pilot project with partners in retail and fast food industries has proven relevant to other essential service industries, such as health and community services, transport and logistics and call centres.

Based on these findings, we have built Respect & Resilience Program resources to assist employers in all sectors support their frontline workers to deal with uncivil customers. The toolkit helps staff identify behaviours that might develop into abusive actions, and provides techniques and tools so they can de-escalate difficult situations. 

Customer incivility and its impacts

According to SafeWork NSW, work-related incivility, aggression or violence includes any incident in which someone is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.

It is not easily defined and is better understood as a spectrum, ranging from rudeness and eye-rolling, through to hateful comments including racist or sexist slurs and derogatory remarks, all the way to life-threatening physical aggression.

Aggression can also be disguised as passive aggression.

Aggression can be a response to stress and difficult emotions such as fear, frustration, anger and anxiety, which are more common during the uncertain times of COVID-19.

What can employers do?

icare's Respect & Resilience Report (PDF, 2 MB) found 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. 

Equally important is ensuring employees are supported in a broader sense through providing adequate training and organisational support structures. Customer service training should focus on understanding the spectrum of incivility, its impacts, how to practise empathy and de-escalation, where to draw the line, safety and self-care.

It is recommended that employers track three key metrics of change to monitor the effectiveness of any interventions to reduce workplace aggression:

  1. frontline service employees' experiences of customer abuse
  2. employees’ markers of change
  3. organisational markers of change.

Supporting each other

As part of any intervention, support for each other in the workplace is vital. The impacts of stress are worse when people feel isolated. Employers can encourage a healthy and supportive work culture with a top-down as well as bottom-up approach within their organisations.

For tools on how to build social connections at work, check out the the icare Social Connections Toolkit.

Community messaging

Appropriate community messaging should also be used to educate the public on a zero-tolerance approach to aggression.

This messaging approach should emphasise something that we all know but sometimes forget: that the person serving you is a person with feelings, just like you and your loved ones, and deserves respect.