Pub. 4 2022 Issue 3


Help Workers Stay Safe: When Customers Get Hostile

This story appears in the
Drive: NH Magazine Pub 4 2022 Issue 3

Reprinted from Safety+Health, Vol. 205, No. 6 • ©2022 National Safety Council
Original article located here:

Earlier this year, many employers in retail and hospitality – as well as those in other industries whose workers deal directly with customers – eased or lifted requirements for masking and physical distancing.

The move, based on updated federal guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19, created anticipation among customers for a return to normalcy. For the workers who assist them, however, pre-pandemic life may not be so close at hand.

As some experts see it, the immediate future for workers in customer-facing industries still includes the risk of stress and anxiety stemming from interactions with hostile patrons.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” said Brian Mayer, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and lead author of a recent study exploring pandemic-related stress among grocery store workers. “I think people are still readjusting to the world in terms of limited labor, limited access to goods, and so customers are still going to be stressed.”







Although on-the-job stress can pose a safety hazard in occupations that don’t revolve around interaction with the public, Alicia Grandey, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Pennsylvania State University, believes workers employed in customer-facing industries take on an added layer of worry.

“This is a really critical problem that our frontline workers are facing,” Grandey said, “and it just adds to the distress they have been facing for a long time.”

‘The customer is not always right’

Before the pandemic, many public-facing workplaces subscribed to the credo, “The customer is always right,” said Grandey, whose research includes the areas of workplace mistreatment and emotional labor. PSU researchers define emotional labor as “managing emotions during interactions to achieve professional goals and conform to work role requirements.”

To Grandey, COVID-19 shifted the practicality of workers deferring to customers regardless of treatment. For one, the pandemic accelerated job insecurity amid the lost hours and pay that accompanied the lockdown phase during the spring of 2020. Then, upon returning to jobs that already carried a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, workers encountered amended roles.

“Not only ‘service with a smile,’” Grandey said, “but also ‘enforce masks,’ which was kind of the opposite of ‘service with a smile’ given people’s reactions.”

Over the past two-plus years, pandemic-driven customer hostility has assumed many forms – and has even taken to the skies. According to Federal Aviation Administration statistics for 2022, as of May 3, the agency has fielded more than 1,300 reports of unruly airline passenger behavior. Of those, more than 800 involved passenger hostility toward federal masking requirements.

Mayer’s study surveyed more than 3,300 grocery store workers in Arizona. It found that high levels of interaction with potentially hostile customers triggered “high levels of mental health distress.”

The study concluded that a feeling that they lack employer support could create a trickle-down effect on workers who are experiencing anxiety, depression and distress.

“People are anticipating that these things are going to happen,” Mayer said. “But as you’re sort of thinking about, ‘Is this next person that’s going to come in the door or this next person that looks agitated at my register, if they’re going to threaten me, if they’re going to yell at me, that I’m going to have to do this on my own,’ that’s going to contribute to stress even if it doesn’t happen.”

Grandey contends that, in the current environment, asking workers to deliver friendly service regardless of treatment may border on unethical.

“Employers need to be letting employees know as a first step that they have their backs, that they will not tolerate customers who are abusive,” she said. “The customer is not always right, and when they are abusive, the employee has the right to say, ‘I will not be treated like that, and this conversation is over,’ and not be penalized for it.”

Providing support and regularly checking in with workers about unpleasant experiences with customers can help employers protect the well-being and retention of frontline staff, Grandey added.

“Asking employees, the ones who are interacting daily with customers, for input, that’s what helps them feel valuable, helps them feel safe and psychologically protected at work,” she said. “And they’re likely to have a good idea of the kind of interactions they’re going to have and the kinds of strategies that will and won’t work. Managers don’t have to have all the answers, but they do need to know what questions to ask.”

What employers can do
NIOSH recommends that employers provide training on strategies to recognize, avoid and respond to potentially violent situations. 

According to the agency, warning signs of violence include verbal cues (such as speaking loudly or swearing) and nonverbal cues (clenched fists, heavy breathing, a fixed stare and pacing).

Steve Fabick is a Birmingham, MI-based psychologist whose areas of expertise include conflict resolution and stress management. He advises workers responding to violence or potential violence to be mindful not only of the individual, but also the situation.

“Acknowledge the context,” Fabick said.

Workers also can keep from appearing harsh or judgmental by maintaining neutral eye contact and avoiding body language that may be construed as hostile, such as crossed arms or finger pointing.

“When the aggressive person feels it’s not ‘you vs. me,’ and when they feel at all heard and acknowledged and even some
degree of empathy, it increases their likelihood that they’re going to de-escalate and see, perhaps, other options rather than just, ‘I have to fight you and get through you to get what I need,’” Fabick said.

NIOSH also recommends that workers report to managers or supervisors any perceived threats or acts of violence, and provide support to colleagues and customers if threatening or violent situations arise.

“Early intervention is essential and requires a supportive, non-judgmental approach,” the National Retail Federation
says. “Acknowledge the customer’s concerns and give them an opportunity to vent before asking them to do something they might not like (for example, wear a mask).”

Talk it through

In a blog post on NRF’s website, Dave Young, co-founder and director of training for conflict-management firm Vistelar, says that customers may grow upset even in situations in which workers or employers follow proper de-escalation strategies.

“We’re responsible for the process,” Young writes. “We’re not held accountable for the outcome, because the outcome is out of our control.” Still, experts say presenting a calm attitude while avoiding matching threats and giving orders can help increase the chances that customers don’t resort to violence. 

At the same time, workers should remain vigilant, acknowledging the customer’s feelings with “I” statements (One example: “I know this isn’t always easy”) and being mindful of each situation.

Fabick called the approach “de-escalating in terms of your response, speaking softly but carrying enough of a stick – to use the old Teddy Roosevelt saying – that you’re not afraid to use a logical consequence and impose some sort of limitation.”

To that end, NRF advises workers to ask hostile customers to step aside “and offer to let them discuss the problem with a manager.” If the situation persists, request help from a co-worker, a supervisor or security and “divert the person to an area with fewer customers to prevent other people from escalating as well, and to keep everyone safe.”

NIOSH recommends that workers not isolate themselves with a violent person, and to keep an open path to flee the situation.

In the absence of security in the workplace or an employer policy that addresses the situation, the worker should call 911 if they’re in danger of bodily harm or being threatened, the agency says.

In extreme cases, NIOSH advises retreating to a safe area – “ideally, a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm.”

‘Focus on the employees’

Young writes that “the better trained your people are, the more the out-of-control situations are a rarity.”

To Grandey, that notion can be reinforced by offering workplace safety and health programs that promote physical and mental well-being. Further, by having access to these resources, employees are more likely to feel physically and psychologically safe at work – and therefore more likely to stay in their job. When they don’t feel protected and supported, they’re more likely to leave.

“I would encourage employers to remember that, because without your employees, you can’t serve those customers, and there’s plenty of customers out there,” Grandey said. “The ones that are abusive are still more rare than the ones that are respectful, at least from what I’ve seen. So we [need] to focus on the employees and keeping them safe.”

Feature at a Glance

Pre-COVID-19 pandemic work life may not return as quickly for employees in customer-facing industries. As some experts see it, the immediate future for workers in grocery, retail, hospitality and similar sectors still includes the risk of stress and anxiety stemming from interactions with hostile customers.

Key points

  • Over the past two-plus years, pandemic-driven customer hostility has assumed many forms.
  • NIOSH recommends that employers provide training on strategies to recognize, avoid and respond to potentially violent situations.
  • “Early intervention is essential and requires a supportive, nonjudgmental approach,” the National Retail Federation says. “Acknowledge the customer’s concerns and give them an opportunity to vent before asking them to do something they might not like (for example, wear a mask).”

Keep teen workers safe

For teen workers, many of whom have jobs in retail or restaurants, dealing with hostile customers may be even more intimidating. NIOSH’s take:

“Teens often lack work experience and their employers frequently do not provide training on workplace violence prevention, which benefits workers of all ages. Given that teens are still developing and maturing physically, cognitively and emotionally, they require workplace safety and health training, including training related to violence prevention that is tailored to their specific needs and circumstances. Also, young workers should not work alone, late at night and around cash.

“It is important for employers to adhere to federal and state child labor laws that help protect young people from working in jobs that can harm their health or safety.” For more information, visit violence.html.

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