The key tenet of health and safety law is that employers must not put staff in situations which pose a risk to their health and wellbeing. This concept is well understood and practiced where employers recognise physical situations such as not exposing staff to faulty equipment or to the possibility of slips and trips. It is less well practiced when the health and wellbeing of staff are put at risk from exposure to customers’ aggression.
Managing the impact of customer aggression seems less clear cut than managing the risks to staff from equipment failure. However the impact of being constantly on the receiving end of emotion loaded customer frustrations can be severe, including extreme stress and burnout.
Organisations have a legal duty to do all they can to support staff dealing with customer aggression. In practice this means playing an active part in managing the behaviour of customers. Organisations should look at the management of customers’ behaviour at three levels, namely:
1: Individual level: The staff member attempts to manage the conflict directly with the customer. Staff should be trained on how to recognise and separate the issue under discussion from the customer’s behaviour, and how to manage that behaviour effectively. If a staff member cannot calm the situation, the customer should be directed on to a supervisor or manager.
2: Supervisor/manager level: The supervisor or manager should aim to calm the customer down by again attempting to address the customer’s behaviour. There is frequently an automatic down shift in a customer’s aggression level when they perceive a ‘win’ by getting through to a manager. Unfortunately this does not always improve their behaviour when they call or turn up at the ‘front line’ next time, particularly if they perceive their aggression worked first time round.
3: Organisation level: If the aggression persists or is repeated regularly (daily or weekly), the supervisor/manager should involve senior managers. Decisions taken at this level might include requesting that the customer only communicates with the organisation in writing, or speaks with a manager only, or attends a specific location to access the service, or in extreme circumstances, the service might be withdrawn.
We frequently meet staff who have to deal with the same known aggressive people ringing or calling daily or weekly. Staff can live in dread of these encounters as they can be very stressful to handle. Organisations have a duty to manage these situations regardless of the customers’ circumstances. This can be a difficult concept to accept for managers and staff with vulnerable clients. However some time and discussion with staff on what can be done to manage customer aggression and on the support staff feel they need can be a very fruitful exercise.
Support for staff should include addressing what the Health and Safety Executive outlined as the key standards to reduce stress www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards. Included in these standards are the requirements to provide staff with more control over their work, manage their demands better, and increase their support through formal debriefing, supervision and training. There are many benefits to doing this well. Better motivated, supported, and confident staff leads to improved customer service levels!
The Conflict Training Company can help you and your staff get a better handle on all types of conflict. Give us a call on 0845 6585678 for an informal chat.