It's never okay for workers to receive verbal or physical abuse from customers.

In 2020, retail workers alone recorded a 400 per cent spike in customer abuse according to the National Retail Association (NRA). And of course, customer abuse can happen in a number of other industries including hospitality, healthcare, public administration and safety, education and more.

Here's what you need to know if you, or someone you know, ever experiences abuse or aggression from a customer.

What is classified as workplace aggression and abuse?

According to Safe Work Australia, "workplace violence and aggression can be any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work".

This may include:

  • physical assault such as biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, pushing, grabbing, throwing objects

  • intentionally coughing or spitting on someone

  • sexual assault or any other form of indecent physical contact, and

  • harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing and can be in person, by phone, email or online.

How can you avoid workplace aggression and abuse?

For a physical workplace you can:

  • ensure access to the premises is appropriately controlled

  • increase security measures such as security personnel, video surveillance or duress alarms

  • separate workers from the public, for example install protective barriers or screens

  • prevent public access to the premises when people work alone or at night

  • limit the amount of cash, valuables and medicines held on the premises

  • ensure there are no dangerous objects that could be thrown or used to injure someone

  • provide workers and others with a safe place to retreat to avoid violence

  • put up signs to reflect that the workplace will not accept any forms of violence and aggression.

In relation to work systems:

  • manage expectations of customers and clients with communications about the nature and limits of the products or services you are now providing, for example online and using signage at the workplace, e.g. inform customers of reduced services, wait times, their place in the queue or offer them other methods for non-urgent requests (such as online forms)

  • provide information as soon as possible on the availability of services/products or processing delays

  • clarify the procedures which customers may not be familiar with, such as physical distancing in stores and queuing procedures

  • adapt opening hours if necessary, and clearly communicate this to the public

  • avoid workers needing to work in isolation and provide sufficient staff during periods of high customer attendance

  • train workers in how to deal with difficult customers, conflict resolution and when to escalate problem calls to senior staff, including procedures to report incidents

  • ensure that workers are made aware of their right to cease unsafe work.

How should a worker respond to incidents of aggression and/or abuse?

This will depend on the nature and severity of the incident, however all workers should be trained in what to do in multiple types of safety incidents.

They should:

  • use calm, verbal communication and body language

  • Use verbal distraction and de-escalation techniques

  • seek support from colleagues

  • ask the aggressor to leave the premises or disconnect them from the phone call/online chat

  • alert security personnel or police

  • retreat to a safe location

After ensuring those directly involved in the incident are safe, provide any first aid for urgent medical attention if required. Psychological support to the victim/s and other workers may also be necessary. You may also need to notify your Work Health and Safety (WHS) regulator if it's a 'notable incident. See here for more information.


If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Article originally published by: Safe Work Australia

Image credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash, Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.

Did this answer your question?