How Can HR Prevent External Abuse?

By Amanda Beattie
03 Sep 2021

Abuse from clients isn’t exclusive to the retail sector. It also occurs in healthcare, hospitality, the service industry, and the public sector, to name a few.

However, it seems that retail workers do bear the brunt of this mistreatment. A recent survey by Usdaw, the retail trade union, found that over the last 12 months the majority of retail staff in the UK had experienced some kind of abuse from customers.

External Abuse


Specifically looking at the retail sector over the last 12 months, here are the findings of the survey:

  • 92% of staff experienced verbal abuse
  • 70% of staff had been threatened by a customer
  • 13% had been physically assaulted
  • One in five victims never reported the incident to their employer

This isn’t the only survey to highlight the problem. The Co-op reported a 76% rise in anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse in 2020, with more than 100 incidents a day.

These statistics may not come as too much of a shock if you work in retail. To those outside of the industry however, it is a bleak insight into the everyday reality of shopworkers. And, it should make us pose the question:

“Why is this happening?”


It is a little too simplistic to blame the pandemic. However, it does have its role to play. Trying to enforce social distancing, mask-wearing, and more puts staff in direct conflict with individuals who refuse to comply. Plus, major retail chains have confirmed that there has been an increase in violence and threats during the pandemic.

That being said, laying all the blame on COVID ignores some of the root causes of abuse towards staff. After all, this was an issue pre-pandemic.

The root cause may be simply that people know they can get away with it. A report by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) this year stated that only 6% of abusers are prosecuted. A similar report by the Home Affairs Committee found that only 12% of cases led to arrests.

With such low numbers, it’s no surprise that abuse of staff continues. It will also have a detrimental effect on those wanting to report incidents, as they may feel discouraged to do so.

HR’s role

So, is this an issue for HR?

In short, yes. Staff wellbeing is a priority for HR, particularly when the issues affecting wellbeing occur in the workplace. It’s true that the abuse comes from an external party, but you have responsibility for your employees.

In lieu of an HR team, the responsibility falls to the employer.

With this in mind, you should take steps to prevent abuse in the workplace, whatever its source.

Start by communicating standards of behaviour in the workplace. Making these standards visibly clear reminds employees and customers alike what you expect from them. Provide training to store managers so they are well equipped to deal with abusive customers when they appear. Checking in with your staff regularly will also reassure them and allow them to raise concerns.

Working closely with recognised trade unions and staff forums will help highlight where there are issues and allow you to address them directly.

You can provide additional support to your staff by offering wellbeing support. This could come in the form of an employee assistance programme or other mental health services.

You may not be able to address the source of the problem, but you can change how you approach and address it. Having open channels of communication and regular check ins will go a long way to guaranteeing the wellbeing of your staff.

Expert support

If you would like to implement changes in your business to help protect your staff against external abuse, Croner has the expertise to help you.

Speak to one of our HR consultants today on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Amanda Beattie

Amanda represents corporate clients and large public bodies, including complex discrimination and whistleblowing claims. Amanda also drafts and delivers bespoke training regarding all aspects of employment law, including ‘mock tribunal’ events; in addition she also frequently drafts employment law articles for various publications for Croner and their clients.

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