Most managers understand that workplace bullying, sexual harassment and violence between staff is unacceptable and that they have a legal duty to protect their employees from physical and psychological harm.
However, it appears that forces from outside the business are more likely to cause harm to frontline workers who can find themselves on the ‘receiving end’ of customers.
Workers in customer-facing industries have admitted to being subjected to all types of abuse, ranging from verbal insults and threats to all-out physical assault with weapons – even cases of sexual assault.
This abuse isn’t limited to the odd angry customer, or premises that operate in lower socioeconomic demographics either.
Over the past couple of weeks there have been numerous reports of supermarket staff throughout Australia suffering unwarranted abuse since the introduction of the plastic bag ban. Some defenceless staff are being abused as though it was their decision to ban single-use plastic bags.
In WA, a verbally abusive male customer walked up behind a female Woolworths worker and put his hands around her throat.
Earlier this week, Jack Panton, the Chief Executive of Unison (a homeless service provider), admitted to a violent assault on a barman on Grand Final Day last year. The employee was merely following his legal obligation not to serve the customer alcohol because he was excessively intoxicated. Interestingly is that Mr Panton’s wife is Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, not that she was present at the time of the incident.
Abuse on the rise
Bar staff, healthcare workers and retailers report that these types of incidents aren’t one-off.
Customer abuse is endemic. And it is increasing.
To evaluate the extent of the problem, last year the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association surveyed 6,000 retail and fast food workers.
More than 85% percent said they had been abused by customers and nearly 25% experienced this on at least a weekly basis.
Alarmingly, 14% declared suffering physical violence and 12% reported that the abuse or violence they endured was sexual.
And it’s not only retail and fast food staff who receive abuse from customers. Aged care, education, security, banking and social services workers also report that they are exposed to frequent abuse and assaults.
In 2015-2016, Safe Work Australia recorded 2,130 cases where employees had to take more than 1 week off work following a workplace assault. This is almost double the number of the claims recorded in 2000-2001.
But because these incidents are now commonplace doesn’t mean they should be part of the job description.
Employers have a legal duty to minimise all psychological and physical health risks to their workers, including those resulting from customer abuse.
Businesses that are found to have failed in their legal obligation to provide their staff with a safe working environment can face costly litigation claims.