Reducing the impact of customer abuse

icare-funded research has found that the risks, and effects, from customer abuse and violence in the retail sector are underestimated, particularly the impact of verbal abuse.

Confident retail worker stands with arms crossed and smiles.

icare commissioned the Rehabilitation Innovation Service Evaluation (RISE) team, part of the Menzies Health Institute of Queensland at Griffith University, to explore the issue of customer violence and identify measures and tools for evaluation and potential interventions employers can implement. The findings of this research were released in February.

Abuse by customers towards retail and fast-food workers can cause permanent physical, psychological and social injuries which can be life threatening. And for their employers, frightened, distressed and injured workers mean low workplace morale, higher costs due to absenteeism, sick leave and workers’ compensation claims, and staff turnover.

“With almost 90 per cent of retail sector workers reporting experiencing abuse by customers over a 12-month period1, we want to work with employers to find opportunities to reduce the number and severity of these incidents,” said Sara Kahlau, icare’s Chief, Customer and Community."

Abuse by customers ranges from low intensity incivility to high intensity verbal abuse and physical aggression. This type of behaviour can have adverse consequences, both short- and long-term, on the psychological wellbeing, physical health, and work attitudes and performance of employees. It should be noted that verbal abuse and customer incivility can be just as impactful as physical violence and aggression.

With almost 90 per cent of retail sector workers reporting experiencing abuse by customers over a 12-month period1, we want to work with employers to find opportunities to reduce the number and severity of these incidents,” said Sara Kahlau, icare’s Chief, Customer and Community.

The research involved a literature review on dysfunctional customer behaviour by Griffith University, annual member surveys conducted by the Shop and Distributive and Allied Employees Association, and a series of focus groups which were held for a cross-section of employers, employees, unions, government agencies and academics.

Contributing causal factors were found to be organisational policies and the service environment, as well as customer motivator, which are usually around gaining esteem, revenge, and financial benefits.

Four proposed opportunities for intervention are suggested in the report:

  • Modifications to physical elements of the workplace
  • Increased workplace support
  • Specialised and focused customer-service training
  • Incident reaction training.

Regardless of what solution directions are taken, business can track three key metrics of change to monitor effectiveness for their workplaces: frontline service employees’ experience of customer abuse, employee markers of change and organisational markers of change.

“Based on the findings of the report, icare, together with project partners are and co-designing a number of customer, employer and employee-led sustainable and multi-faceted solutions to improve safety outcomes in the retail sector,” said Ms Kahlau.

Read the full report

1 Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association Annual Member Survey 2017.