2 min read

5 steps to protect workers from abuse from a customer

By Joanna Weekes

Have you ever had a situation where a member of your staff has been abused by a client? What did you do? How did you support your staff member? Were you able to prevent it from happening again?

What course of action do our health and safety lawyers recommend in this situation after we received this call from a Handbook subscriber to our Helpdesk:

Question: One of our internal sales personnel has been severely abused and sworn at over the phone by a customer. The customer is a difficult but major client who we would not wish to lose. The complaint to us is not from the employee affected by the abuse but from their direct supervisor. We want to do the right thing by the employee – what steps are we obliged to take at this stage?

Answer: Your business has a duty under health and safety law to provide a safe working environment. It does not matter if the complaint came from the employee who is directly affected by the abuse or from their supervisor.

You are now aware that an employee has been abused by a client and you have an obligation to manage the risk to the health and safety of this employee (and other employees who may deal with the same client).

You must, therefore, speak with the employee and ensure that they are safe, and control risk by identifying measures to eliminate or reduce the risk to the employee’s health and safety.

If eliminating the risk by no longer dealing with the client is not reasonably practicable (which it sounds like it isn’t), your business must implement other measures to control the risk. Start by speaking to the relevant employee, explaining that you support them and arm them with the relevant skills to push back and prevent the verbal abuse happening.

If the employee does not feel comfortable, you should consider implementing the following control measures:

  • Ensure that only a senior employee at the management level deals with that client;
  • Rotate employees so that the employee who is directly affected by the abuse no longer deals with that client;
  • Ensure that employees are trained in how to manage difficult/abusive customers;
  • Ensure that there is a clear escalation procedure in place so employees can refer difficult clients to their supervisor/manager; and
  • Provide customers with information about their rights and responsibilities, including their responsibility to behave in an appropriate manner.

Always to monitor your workers and your workplace to proactively seek out health and safety hazards that may put your workers in harm’s way.

Think about workers in the retail industry – what should an employee do if they are working in-store and a customer enters the premises and begins abusing them? There is a new level of physical threat in this situation. Create safe work procedures and train your workers in these procedures to deal with situations like this. While you always hope they won’t need to use them, your business should have them in place to reduce the risk of damage should it occur.

And as in the example above, make sure your supervisors are trained in how to handle situations like this when they arise and create procedures around reporting incidents in the workplace.

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