Amidst the shocking rise in physical and verbal attacks, what should best practice look like when it comes to creating safer working environments?

For far too long, retail workers have endured unacceptable levels of physical and verbal abuse in shops and businesses up and down the UK, causing stress, anxiety, loss of self-esteem and leaving too many people frightened about going to work.

This has certainly been exacerbated by the introduction of Covid safety measures during the pandemic. Over the last two years, shopworkers across the country have been screamed and shouted at for simply asking customers to wear a mask or keep socially distanced, and many other staff and businesses have spoken about similar incidents of abuse.

In the BRC’s open letter to Government last year, one leading retailer reported 990 incidents of violence or abuse in the week after compulsory face coverings were introduced in shops. And research by legal firm Foot Anstey found that nearly two thirds of retail workers have experienced offensive behaviour like this since the pandemic began.

And yet, while the recent scale of abuse has certainly drawn public attention, we cannot label it as a Covid-only issue. Supermarkets like the Co-op have reported a steady rise of anti-social behaviour over the last decade and the BRC’s own crime survey, conducted in January 2020, found that 450 violent and abusive incidents were being committed against retail staff every single day. The truth is, abusive behaviour in shops has been on rise since long before the pandemic and the ending of Covid restrictions was never going to be enough to stop this problem.

Government and industry response  

One positive from Covid is how it has galvanised Government into making sure retail workers are given greater legal protection. In Scotland, new legislation has been introduced that makes assaulting a shopworker a criminal offence. Elsewhere in the UK, an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has made attacking a retail worker an aggravated offence, which should result in tougher sentencing for offenders.

It is equally important that retail employers now unite to provide the right protection for our colleagues on the frontline who continue to face an unacceptable threat of violence and abuse. For example; ensuring staff feel supported by their managers in challenging situations, putting in place training for dealing with difficult customers and how to manage harassment, making sure the right signage and security is in place, and recording and reviewing any complaints of harassment to identify patterns and improve how they are managed.

Yet only 15% of retailers we spoke to for the Retail Trust’s 2021 Health of Retail report at the start of last year said they had done anything to raise awareness or implement training on how to handle difficult conversations or conflict with members of the public. Many admitted it had been something discussed but never actioned. And a survey by the Home Affairs Committee found that, of the 87 per cent of retail workers who reported an offence to their employer, nearly half said that no further action was taken. A third of respondents said they did not report incidents to their employer because they believed nothing would be done or that abuse was ‘just part of the job’.

It is time to recognise and showcase those employers that are taking the appropriate steps to protect their workers and deal with any complaints of harassment, and to provide the right support to other businesses to improve the measures they have in place. So at the Retail Trust we have joined forces with Foot Anstey to launch a first in its kind certification for the retail industry that has been designed to create safer working environments for staff and give retail workers some of the clarity and reassurance they deserve by showing exactly what their employers are doing to protect them.

Only 15% of retailers said they had done anything to raise awareness or implement training on how to handle difficult conversations or conflict with customers.

Improving the image of the industry and its employers

The Retailers Against Harassment Certification will assess retailers across multiple aspects, including the policies and procedures they have in place to deal with harassment, their leadership’s commitment to tackling the problem, employees’ experiences, and how complaints are handled. This work will also involve interviews with staff and a workshop to provide feedback and develop ideas for delivering improvements, and it will culminate with a written report and recommendations, and certification if the appropriate standard is met.

A number of people no longer see retail as a preferred career choice, so we must focus on initiatives which improve the image of the industry.

Teams will benefit from the Retail Trust’s and Foot Anstey’s joint expertise on how best to protect staff and prevent issues before they occur. And the recognised certification can then be used as powerful evidence of a retailer’s commitment to protecting its people, and helping to attract and retain employees at a time when job satisfaction levels are waning retail vacancy rates are at an all-time high. A worrying number of people no longer see retail as a preferred career choice, so we must focus on initiatives like this which improve the image of the industry and its employers.

We have so much to thank retail workers for, particularly over the last couple of years when they have worked so hard to keep stores running, deliver essential services and implement the correct safety measures. They should be celebrated as heroes, something we very much intend to do at the Retail Trust’s Together Fest this month where more than 600 retail workers will take part in a day of activities and entertainment that will also provide new tools to improve and manage their wellbeing.

And the very least they now deserve is the ability to carry out their jobs without fear of being abused or assaulted.

To find out more about Retail Trust and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.

This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.