Staff training reduces customer abuse

Respect & Resilience hits the ABC TV News headlines.

Smiling retail worker girl in shop

Our pilot program Respect & Resilience was screened on ABC TV News on Christmas Eve after staff training in de-escalation techniques and improving retail environments led to a 48 per cent reduction in customer misbehaviour incidents at KFC and The Reject Shop. 

The program was developed by Griffith University and commissioned by icare and the NSW branch of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) following their 2017 survey finding that customer abuse affected almost 90 per cent of retail and fast-food workers of all ages.

Customer misbehaviour describes the spectrum of negative behaviours from physical violence and abuse to rude and disrespectful comments.  

Andrew Ellery, Head of Community Engagement at icare, says the program has received overwhelming support from employers in the retail and fast food sectors.

“Around 70 employers attended a second roundtable in September to hear the program’s results. Everyone is genuinely committed to finding hands-on solutions to this growing crisis facing their employees,” says Andrew.

“They are keenly aware of the risks and effects of widespread customer abuse and violence. They know firsthand how it can affect their workers’ physical, psychological and social health, and can be life threatening.”

“We have been tackling this issue for the last 18 months with the SDA and the Rehabilitation Innovation Service Evaluation (RISE) team, a part of the Menzies Health Institute of Queensland at Griffith University.”

“We wanted to find ways of better supporting and upskilling workers to reduce the physical and psychological impact of abuse and to de-escalate and reduce the number of incidents.”

Dr Samantha Ferguson from Griffith University headed the team and recalls the beginning of the project.

“First we undertook a systematic literature review but only identified two validated interventions globally. This led our team to investigate predictors of aggression and potential targets for an intervention. From here, we developed a collaborative approach, utilising focus groups and a roundtable event, to create a practical intervention,” says Samantha. 

“We focused our attention on the lower levels of customer aggression – incivility and abuse – because the higher levels of physical abuse are well-catered for. What became evident is the industry didn’t know how often these lower levels of aggression were occurring and exactly what frontline employees were dealing with. 

“The Respect & Resilience program was created to provide frontline employees with specialised training workshops and a program evaluation to complete.”

The evaluation included an incident diary where they recorded their experiences of customer misbehaviour (incivility, abuse and aggression). Another component of the program was in-store signage to increase customer awareness of the outlets’ zero tolerance approach to bad behaviour. The results were outstanding: prior to the intervention, the workers in the pilot sites had recorded 240 incivility incidents, 13 cases of verbal abuse and three episodes of verbal aggression.

“By giving workers the necessary tools and building their confidence they felt able to take control of situations that would previously have escalated. They were able to manage the incident in a way that prevented rudeness and protect themselves from copping abuse,” Andrew says. 

“Our results show how the combination of in-person training, organisational awareness, and policy and procedures to record and monitor customer misbehaviour can have a significant impact in reducing customer misbehaviour. Of course, the problem is larger than just retail – it’s prevalent in the health sector, education, call centres and airports.”

“Our next step is to broaden the scope of our learnings so more businesses across NSW can adopt the program.”

“This message needs to spread to the community at large. Bad behaviour is becoming the norm.”

“The Community Engagement team would also like to work with communities to reward good behaviour and make individuals more aware of the impact of their bad behaviour. After all, every worker is someone’s mother, son or friend,” concludes Andrew.

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