Positive approaches to challenging behaviours
by Bill Fox, founder and executive chairman, Maybo
Tackling anti-social behaviour and abuse towards retail workers is back at the top of the priority list for many retailers. The BRC Retail Crime Survey reported a 40 per cent increase in violence, and respondents said that violence and cyber-crime were areas of most concern to their businesses. As if trading wasn’t hard enough.
We were reminded of the personal costs of violence before Christmas with the tragic murder of Aldi colleague Jodie Willsher by a person known to her, then with the killing two weeks later of Vijay Patel outside a convenience store in Mill Hill after he had refused to sell items to some young men.
Whilst such tragedies are relatively rare, the impact of day-to-day hostility towards staff is substantial for people and businesses. In this article I will consider some of the challenges experienced, why these are increasing, and what employers and sector bodies are doing about it.
Changing Nature and Extent of Behaviour
Common flashpoints for retail conflict and violence include confronting suspected thieves, refusing sales, and dealing with challenging or anti-social behaviour. Nothing new here, but the prevalence of each appears to be increasing. Theft across the sector and anti-social behaviour are increasing issues for cafés and take-away and sit-in fast-food outlets.
Customer Theft. Many shops and cafés are experiencing increased theft. The link between theft and violence is clear with circa 70 per cent of assaults on retail workers taking place when confronting suspected thieves. Whilst the causes of crime are complex and much debated, a reduction in Police resources is likely to be a contributing factor and should certainly be a constraint factored in to violence-reduction strategies.
Refusing Sales. Tighter restrictions on age-related sales and drunkenness are inevitably increasing conflict flashpoints. Frontline workers and businesses face serious consequences for not complying with the law and risk abuse when they do the right thing. Add alcohol, drugs, and an “audience” to the mix, and skillful handling is required, often by staff with limited experience and training.
Challenging and Anti-social Behaviours (ASB). This is an ongoing problem for local shops and an increasing one I am finding for cafés and food outlets in urban areas. It can take various forms including:
- Groups of children causing a nuisance after school and nuisance behaviour involving groups of adolescents “hanging out” in and around premises—warmth and Wi-Fi being particularly appealing this time of year.
- Alcohol-fuelled behaviour experienced especially (but not exclusively) at outlets operating at night. Alcohol is the most consistent factor present in acts of violence. (A Cardiff Crime and Security Research Institute study found prejudice and hate was a major motivator in acts of violence in city centres at night, which was expressed when people became intoxicated, in other words alcohol was a factor in 90 per cent of assaults surveyed.)
- A minority of the “street community” presenting challenges that can include begging on premises, overstaying, and engaging in substance misuse.
Who Mentioned Brexit? Over the past couple of years my clients operating shops and cafés have been reporting a significant increase in unpleasant attitudes and hostility by customers towards colleagues based on perceived nationality. Prejudice is nothing new; however, staff with European accents report experiencing this much more pre and post the referendum. Low-level behaviours such as these are rarely recorded but affect a large number of people and make recruiting and keeping staff even more difficult.
Positive Sector Initiatives: A Problem Shared
The good news is that the sector is taking these issues very seriously indeed, with committed local business crime partnerships and national crime and violence reduction initiatives underway. This includes the Home Office facilitated Retail Violence Reduction Group and Security Industry Authority (SIA) Violence Reduction Advisory Group, which are collaborating on strategies for reducing and managing violence.
The new Police-sponsored National Business Crime Centre (NBCC) has violence reduction as a priority, and the National Business Crime Solution (NBCS) is sharing good practice and is involved in operations targeting prolific offenders. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) and the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) continue to support and provide guidance to their members, and sector-specific forums such as those facilitated by ORIS Forums are also involved in projects to reduce violence against retail staff.
There continue to be calls for tougher sentencing of those who assault retail workers as the range of powers and legal remedies extends. These range from new offences and sentencing powers, such as for harassment and hate crime, to various banning and protection orders that can apply to individuals and groups and cover public spaces. The latter—called Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) through the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime, and Police Act 2014—can be wide ranging. Examples include the PSPOs proposed by Derby City Council, covering a range of anti-social behaviours within a defined area of the city centre, including drinking in public spaces and begging. Naturally, such orders are being vigorously challenged in terms of infringing human rights and freedoms, and their effectiveness is yet to be determined.
Violence is a complex area, and positive outcomes require a combination of proactive and reactive strategies. When resources are scarce, as they are presently, we need to know which measures or combination of measures will deliver best results. We also need to collaborate and be creative.
Smarter Use of Security and LP Personnel
Retailers are more knowledgeable and discerning in their approach to crime and safety. They are more targeted with their resources, whether in terms of training or use of security equipment and loss prevention personnel. It wasn’t that long ago that the most influential KPI for security and loss prevention personnel in large stores was arrest figures. Catching thieves was the sexy part of the job, and store teams would openly compete on arrest stats. Whilst arrest is still a tactical option, for some a strategy available, it can be a blunt instrument when it is the preferred one.
Arrest/detention also carries significant risks, especially where staff use force and restrain. Both they and the suspect are vulnerable to harm, and the sector has seen death of colleagues and suspects in such circumstances, with a devastating impact on people and businesses.
I find that retailers could be clearer as to what they expect of managers, supervisors, sales assistants, and security personnel in foreseeable risk scenarios and better communicate this.
Retail outlets in shopping centres benefit from centre-based security, but need to work through scenarios where their own staff and centre security get involved in situations inside and outside a store. One area to watch if contracting security is how recently officers have refreshed their conflict management and (if relevant) physical intervention training, as this is not an SIA stipulation at SIA licence renewal and could be years out of date.
Approaches to security and loss prevention are more considered as teams reduce both violence risks and shrink through prioritising “deters” over arrests. Where detention of suspected thieves is a valid part of a strategy, it is essential to work through the substantial risks this can present for staff, suspects, and the business. Procedures, staff training, and facilities, such as safe holding areas, need to be considered.
Technology is helping deter criminals and prevent theft of goods, thereby reducing staff exposure to conflict. This extends beyond property tagging systems to staff protection, with personal alarm and remote monitoring technology being used more widely in all types of settings. Similar approaches have been popular in lone worker safety for some time and allow staff to use fixed or body-worn devices that trigger central-station monitoring, recording, and two-way communication over the speaker system. This provides reassurance and “live” support for those dealing with a situation “kicking off” in their store or restaurant, also knowing Police will be called if necessary.
Security functions in particular are realising the benefits of body-worn cameras in the prevention and management of crime and violence. “Body cams” are not just for gathering evidence—they can be an effective inhibitor of behaviour. People generally become more aware of their behaviour when they know they are being filmed on a body camera. Another benefit is the impact on the behaviour of the wearer, encouraged to be professional in the knowledge that their voice is being recorded. Body cameras help show managers and police just how challenging and scary the situation was, which is difficult to explain with such impact on a paper report. As with any equipment purchase, the true costs of introduction need to be factored, including purchase, deployment, training, maintenance, and replacement. The downloading, sharing, and management of digital content from body cameras also needs careful thought.
Colleagues can help deter thieves through being observant and simply delivering good customer service. The “nosey sales assistant” or greeter was a stronger deterrent than CCTV according to shoplifters interviewed by Professor Martin Gill. This can be as simple as greeting customers and offering help.
Training needs to equip staff and managers with the skills to respond professionally to potential conflicts ranging from customer dissatisfaction to suspected theft or anti-social behaviour. The more specific and relevant the content is to the challenges staff face, the more impactful it will be and likely to translate to positive staff behaviours in the workplace.
Technology is also playing a bigger role in learning with interactive and engaging computer-based programmes available to support face-to-face training as part of a flexible “blended learning strategy.”
In my experience, most large retailers have some form of induction training or e-learning in this subject area, fewer however have a robust training needs analysis (TNA) that underpins this. This lack of rigour in a critical area of health and safety makes it hard to show evidence it is “fit for purpose.” The organisation may be wasting time and money and be left exposed should it be scrutinised.
The following steps will help ensure effective “risks and needs-based” training:
- Fully understand the risks faced within the business; in other words review incident data and risk assessments and
use staff surveys, focus groups, and local visits.
- Identify the key conflict and risk scenarios experienced.
- Establish desired outcomes and how progress will be evaluated.
- Ensure clear guidance and procedures are in place to be communicated during training.
- “Reality check” procedures with a cross-section of outlets as what is viable in a large outlet or superstore may be
wholly unrealistic in a smaller outlet/convenience store.
- Establish the different job roles performed, expectations of these, and training needs.
- Record the above in a TNA with agreed content, delivery approach, and review points.
As we have seen, the nature of challenging behaviour and risk changes, and we need to keep dancing. The ability to respond to local issues before they reach crisis point is essential. A comprehensive strategy is required to effectively address conflict and challenging behaviour, embracing latest security technologies and training. This involves identifying key risk behaviours and putting in place controls and guidance for these, which are then communicated through “scenario-based training.”
Mark Whittle, head of security at McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd, takes a positive and proactive approach to the challenging behaviours experienced by many high street-based businesses. Mark said, “We have developed bespoke training delivered through a blend of online learning, practically based courses, and targeted local coaching inputs. The training communicates safety and security guidance and builds personal skills and confidence to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for our colleagues and customers.”
Whilst large retailers have their own challenges in getting things done, they do have internal support functions to advise and develop controls and training. A key focus for the national violence reduction initiatives is support for small and independent retailers. This includes guidance on risk reduction and resources to develop staff awareness. It is easy to understand why a shopkeeper tackles a person who is stealing their hard-earned cash or goods, or confronts those who scare away customers. This is especially hard for shopkeepers and their families who live locally. Local partnerships can help small businesses greatly through initiatives to reduce crime and address anti-social behaviour.
The constantly evolving nature of retail brings new challenges, and we have seen delivery workers targeted for their vehicles, goods, and cash. This group has been particularly vulnerable to the latest horrific trend in attacks involving corrosive substances. In November, delivery rider Muhammed Kamal was blinded with acid as thieves targeted his moped in Walthamstow.
Whilst the challenges are considerable, violence is being taken seriously in the retail sector, and I am optimistic that through working together on proactive and reactive strategies, we can reduce risks to our customer-facing colleagues.
Organisations are moving away from the “reactive cycle”—throwing money at security devices or training every few years following nasty incidents. They are putting in place considered, multi-element strategies that are sustainable and responsive to changing demands and localised needs.
Bill Fox is founder and executive chairman of Maybo. He is a specialist in the prevention and management of conflict and challenging behaviour. He works extensively with retail LP and security functions and is currently involved in two national projects addressing violence towards retail workers.