The constant threat from crime could be affecting your staff’s health and your wealth. Aidan Fortune finds out how to tackle a culture of fear in stores and ensure a safe working environment

If your team isn’t working at its best, your store isn’t either. While there are many reasons for unproductive staff, one major cause is the threat of crime. Research from shopworkers’ union USDAW shows a UK store worker is either verbally abused, threatened with violence or physically attacked every minute of the working day, so it’s no surprise this pressure takes its toll on employees.

Paula McClay understands this all too well. Her Spar store in Greystone, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, had previously been a target for anti-social behaviour, leading to concerns for employees’ safety. Staff morale was low and it wasn’t until management took a zero tolerance approach to crime that the situation changed.

“Staff members were being abused while at work,” she says. “It was a bad working environment and it made it very difficult. They are a good team and shouldn’t have to tolerate abuse while providing a service to the community.”

She says that when a tougher stance on crime was taken the situation improved. “The management started forging links with the police and local authorities to crack down on this and it really helped the situation. There was a much better atmosphere in the store,” adds Paula. “Staff members can now get on with their jobs without being fearful.

Crime safety advice contacts Maybo provides advice and training on dealing with workplace violence and conflict resolution. There is a charge for courses, but Maybo does offer free advice on avoiding conflict and working alone. 01580 881347 

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust provides advice and workshops for lone workers. It also details the responsibilities of business owners when it comes to staff working on their own. 
020 7091 0014 

The Health and Safety Executive has advice on staff safety and downloadable guides on what managers should be doing to ensure their employees’ safety. 
0845 345 0055 

Advice on what businesses can do to help protect their staff from violent crime and anti-social behaviour is available at the Home Office website.            020 7035 4848


“We make it clear that we will not tolerate any abuse towards staff in our store,” adds Paula. “Nobody gets paid enough to have to deal with that. Even if someone verbally abuses a staff member, they are removed from the premises immediately.”

USDAW runs an ongoing Freedom From Fear campaign, which attempts to drive awareness of shop staff safety and the threats they face. The campaign receives an additional boost during USDAW’s Respect for Shopworkers Week (November 7-11).

The union’s health and safety officer, Doug Russell, says that any abuse towards staff is unacceptable and urges retailers to stand up for their hard-working employees. “Unfortunately, within the convenience store sector the threat of attack or verbal abuse is quite high up there when it comes to risks to shopworkers,” he says. “Retailers have a duty of care to do what’s reasonably responsible to ensure that employees are safe in the workplace.”

One of the ways that Paula and her management team helped to create a safe environment was to make sure that staff members knew they could come to them if there was an issue. “The staff know that the police are on call and that at the very least they should tell a manager of any incident,” she says. “We make it clear to them that every crime should be recorded.”

While the management at Spar Greystone encourages staff to report everything that happens, there is a culture of under-reporting within the convenience store sector. Russell says that store owners need to put a stop to this. “A lot of staff members don’t want to speak up if they feel that an area is vulnerable as they don’t want to be branded as troublemakers,” he says. “Also, they’re wary of feeling they are wasting people’s time if they report incidents such as verbal abuse and will often just say nothing. This is something that needs to be addressed within the retail industry.”

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) and National Crime Steering Group recently launched a survey to examine the safety of staff in stores and identify the reasons why employees may be reluctant to report crimes to management, or the police. The issue has also been highlighted as a top concern by crime prevention minister Baroness Browning.

ACS chief executive James Lowman says that it’s crucial retailers ensure the safety of their staff. “It is essential that staff members feel secure in their place of work. The best way to deliver this is with simple, understandable procedures for dealing with a range of crime types, from shop theft to robbery, including the reporting of incidents.”

Chris Mitchener, owner of Swan Street Stores in Kingsclere, Hampshire, ensures that his staff members feel more secure by training them in how to react in the event of a robbery or a potentially dangerous situation.

“First and foremost, I urge them to protect themselves,” he says. “Stock and cash can always be replenished, but a person’s health can’t. If someone comes into the store and demands that they hand over the contents of the till, then I’d rather they just did it than resist and put themselves at risk.”

Chris has made sure that his store carries as many deterrents as possible. “Our CCTV systems are signposted and we have notices up saying that shoplifters will be prosecuted,” he explains. “If a staff member can apprehend a shoplifter without risking their safety that’s fine, but otherwise they shouldn’t be expected to risk their life for it.”

He adds that staff safety should be at the forefront of every retailer’s mind and that if they want their business to be successful, they need to protect employees as much as possible. “Decent staff members are difficult to find and a retailer should do whatever is in his or her power to keep them, and this includes protecting them while at work,” he says. “No staff member should have to deal with the threat of crime and should feel safe at all times.”

Harsh words

Russell says that even verbal abuse, which some may consider a minor offence, can result in long-term damage to employees. “It’s easy to say that verbal abuse is not the worst thing that can happen to someone, but if it’s persistent it can cause severe psychological damage to an individual, causing them to fall ill and perhaps miss work.”

Lowman agrees: “The risks of not providing a culture of security for retail staff include poor customer service, high staff turnover and high absenteeism,” he says. “If staff have not been consulted on their security you cannot expect them to perform to the best of their ability.”

James Ratcliffe, former manager of Spar Pike Hill in Burnley, which picked up C-Store’s 2011 Zero Tolerance Award, has seen first-hand how staff fears can affect a business. “We had gangs of louts outside the store abusing customers and staff, making it very difficult for everyone,” he explains.

Not only did it discourage customers from coming to the shop, James found it hard to get people to work in the evenings and had a high turnover of staff. “People would call in sick at the last minute, or just leave the job with no notice,” he says. “It made it very difficult for us as we were never running at full strength and the business wasn’t doing as well as it could be.”

Once James and his team tackled the anti-social element by installing a Mosquito device and building a stronger relationship with the community, they found that business started improving and their staffing issues stopped.

“The store doesn’t have a problem with finding staff now and employee turnover has vastly reduced,” he says. “As well as that the store’s turnover has increased and it’s much more successful.”

He urges other retailers who may be in a similar situation to act as soon as possible.

“Talk to your staff about their concerns,” points out James. “Staff need to feel safe while doing their job so look at the risks they’re concerned about and work out how best to overcome them.”

Russell agrees, noting that sometimes staff members can spot things that the retailer hasn’t. “Encourage feedback from staff as much as possible, and make it clear that they are able to approach you if they have a concern,” he says. “They should also be able to tell you if any crime prevention measures that you have in place aren’t working. It’s no good a retailer investing a large sum of money on a security system that isn’t practical or efficient.”

Russell advises retailers to consult staff members when installing new security measures, too. “A retailer may think that a certain device is a good idea, but a staff member will be out on the shopfloor every day and know if it’s practical or not,” he says. “They may also be able to come up with solutions or new ideas that can save the retailer money.”

Lowman says that crime safety training should take place as soon as a new member of staff comes on board. “All staff induction courses should address the issue of crime and personal safety,” says Lowman. “A balance must be struck between equipping retail staff with the skills to manage these issues while not undermining the confidence of staff regarding their safety as a retail employee.

However, he believes security training should also be ongoing. “Most safety training is delivered annually, but should be refreshed regularly in accordance with the levels and types of crime faced by their business,” he says.

Education counts

Lowman recommends retailers examine external training options and they don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money. “There are a range of organisations that offer training courses across the country. These range from charities, such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust which offers advice for lone workers, to companies that specifically deliver retail staff safety training such as robbery awareness,” says Lowman. “Retailers should consider which organisations specifically address the threats that their business is vulnerable to.”

The message is clear: keep your staff feeling safe and secure and you’ll be rewarded with a more productive workforce and a bigger bottom line.