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Abuse is Not Part of the Job

Last updated: 21 April

Throughout the Coronavirus outbreak, Usdaw members have been working extremely hard to ensure that the shelves stay stocked and the nation remains fed. 

The majority of the public have shown welcome support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability and social distancing requirements have become new flashpoints for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Your employer has a duty to keep you safe at work. Violence and abuse should never be tolerated and you should report any incident using your company procedures.

If you feel unsafe at work for any reason, you should speak to your manager and raise it with your Union rep.
Social distancing
In line with guidance from public health bodies, all retailers should now have processes in place to ensure social distancing within stores. See our guidance here.
These new measures are there to protect customers and shopworkers. If customers are not following guidelines your employer should support you in reminding them of the need for social distancing and referring them to relevant signage around the store. If this doesn’t work, you should report the issue to a manager and/or security staff.
We are aware of a small number of horrific reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. Where this happens, your supervisor or manager should immediately report it to the police. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and will be taken very seriously. 
Limits on goods/Lack of availability of goods
As a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. Employers should have clear signage around the store advising customers of these limits. 
When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence. This is clearly unacceptable. Abuse is never part of the job and your employer should have appropriate procedures in place to protect you. If you need to call for assistance from a manager, the manager must back you up and ask the customer to leave without being served if they persist with their abuse.
Delivery Drivers
There has been a major increase in use of online deliveries during the Coronavirus outbreak. Supermarkets have put in place measures such as doorstep only deliveries to protect drivers and customers. If customers refuse to follow these measures, or are abusive towards you, then you should report it to your manager. 
More information on safety for delivery drivers can be found in our leaflet here.

Legal Protection for Shopworkers 
Usdaw is campaigning for assaulting a shopworker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. We have written to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation. 

What to do if a customer is abusive 
It is very important that you are prepared for difficult situations and know how to handle them. Your employer should give you guidance on company procedures for this, but here are some points to remember:
  1. Be polite - It can be hard but remaining polite and helpful is the best way to calm down an abusive person. Remember your customer service training.
  2. Be firm - As politely as possible explain any restrictions or company policies that apply and tell a difficult customer that their behaviour is unacceptable.
  3. Don’t be afraid to call for help - If you feel threatened call for help, it is not a sign of weakness or failure.
If, despite your best efforts, the situation escalates and the customer starts harassing you:
  • Stay calm – do not respond with aggression.
  • Keep a safe distance – while dealing with an abusive customer or asking someone to leave the store remember to stand back and observe the 2 metre rule. If the customer approaches you ask them politely to stand back. Move back yourself if necessary.
  • Do not tackle the situation on your own – either call for a supervisor/manager to come to you, or go to them and ask them to deal with the customer.
  • The supervisor/manager should explain that harassment of staff will not be tolerated and take appropriate action.
  • Let your Usdaw rep know what has happened and report the customer to management, whether it is inside or outside the store.
  • Inform management if you see a banned person re-enter the store.
Always report any incidents of abuse, threats and violence to your line manager and keep your own record. Your employer should also keep any other evidence such as CCTV footage of an incident.
Reporting is important because it gives management a picture of the severity of problems at your store and alerts them to the need for increased security measures. Your employer can also use the evidence from the report to decide on banning the offender. The evidence can also be forwarded to the police. They have range of powers they can use under anti-social behaviour laws and the new coronavirus legislation. Where there is evidence of an assault or a hate crime they should consider prosecuting. 
You should also talk to your Usdaw rep to ensure that a proper record of abusive incidents is being kept by the store, and so that they can raise any ongoing issues with your manager.
Dealing with abuse at work can be very traumatic, and your employer should put support in place after an incident if you need it. Most large employers will provide Employee Assistance Programmes which provide confidential support. Speak to your union rep if you have any concerns. 

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