Danger: you've got a job

Violence in the workplace is on the increase, and one of the highest risk areas is the retail industry - especially for graduates. By Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Culture
Most of us are au fait with the dangers of violence on the streets and even in the home. If there aren't dark alleys and dodgy cab drivers to worry about, there are aggressive partners. What we are rarely warned about, however, is the increasing risk of brutality in the workplace. After all, employers will always take steps to protect you, won't they? If not, surely a colleague would shield you?

Don't be so sure. According to the Health and Safety Executive, there has been a significant increase in the number of violent attacks by colleagues and clients in the workplace, and not just in the most obviously dangerous jobs. Schools and libraries, for instance, are higher risk environments than ever before. And according to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust - named after the young estate agent who disappeared without a trace in the course of her work - more and more market researchers and social workers have to cope with being threatened with dogs or being punched and spat at.

Meanwhile, staff from housing departments have the odd kitchen sink or toilet hurled at them. One was even held hostage by two 65-year-olds. And while the British Crime Survey does not have a specific category for workplace violence, it does note "acquaintance violence" which accounts for about half of all attacks on men and one third of all attacks on women. A staggering 23 per cent of these incidents involve a customer or client, and around 20 per cent occur at work.

Retailing has become a particularly prominent danger area in the late Nineties. The British Retail Consortium's crime survey reported that this year, violent incidents against retail staff had increased by 44 per cent to 13,000. Nathan Flatman remembers his experience as a new graduate last year. "I was employed as a supervisor of the toy department in a major store and at Christmas, it was not unusual for customers to get very irate when we didn't stock the things they wanted. Because we were their last line of attack, they could get very aggressive and they sometimes even resorted to pushing us around."

Indeed, claims Flatman - who now works for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust - just as retailing is high risk in terms of a working environment, graduates are high risk in terms of becoming victims. "Generally, graduates are still a bit under-confident in the workplace and have not learnt that sometimes it is better to refuse to get into certain situations than just trying to please the boss."

In addition, maintains the Trust, graduates are used to working individually at university. The result? They are less likely to attempt to decrease the risk of violence by asking to work as part of a team. "Graduates working in financial services, marketing or sales, for instance, are likely to visit clients in their homes alone, even if they feel vulnerable."

The fact that in the Nineties the customer is king is also relevant, says Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "In an insecure working climate, fresh graduates become afraid to stand up for their rights. They are so aware of the Patient's Charter and consumer rights that some of them actually set themselves up to be abused."

To top it all, claims Cooper, employers are not doing enough about it. Flatman agrees. There are five main pieces of legislation relevant to violence at work, he says, ranging from the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995. "Yet like many graduate drives, the personal safety training for my new job lasted just half an hour."

So what needs to be learned? Sarah Simpson, training director of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, explains: "At the most basic level, it's essential for employees to leave information with a colleagues about where they are and keep in touch if plans are changed. I know it's common sense, but it's truly amazing how many people simply don't do it."

In addition, there are specific techniques for dealing with another person's anger. "The way you sit, stand and relate to them, as well as what you wear, can have an effect. Hands on the hips, for instance, can be seen as confrontational - as can too much eye contact or moving closer to the person even if it's to put an arm round them." Employees - especially graduates - also need to be aware that their predecessors may have caused the perpetrator to be agitated. A customer could, for example, have been promised something that they never received.

Getting to know the psychology of the angry customer/colleague is vital, according to all training organisations. But the skill of persuading a person to tell you exactly what their problem is, whilst identifying and sympathising with them, comes more naturally to some than others. It It is usually women, in fact. "Women are better at talking their way out of precarious situations," says personal safety trainer, Alice Lewis. "This might explain why statistics show that men are currently twice as likely as women to be subject to violent attacks in the workplace. When you consider that men are far less likely than women to report attacks, the real figure is probably even higher." But, she adds, even near misses need to be recorded. "It's one way of ensuring that the employer will provide more extensive training."

The fact is, however, that even the most sophisticated policies and procedures for safety cannot guarantee that a violent incident will never occur. This is why aftercare - such as critical debriefing or trauma counselling - is as important as training, emphasises counsellor Thelma Williams. "Depression, fear, headaches and flashbacks are typical responses to traumatic experiences. Very often, these responses resolve themselves in a few days, but when sufferers fail to acknowledge their emotions about the event, they can be heightened or prolonged. They may even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder."

In fact, it is not unusual for such events to trigger off other issues. Williams remembers one woman whose experience of violence at work jolted her memory back to when she was raped some years earlier. "This can happen to witnesses, too. The word `trauma' comes from the Greek meaning `to wound'. It doesn't have to mean a wound to the body but to the psyche."

So do most organisations offer aftercare? Unfortunately, they do not. "Counselling still gets a bad press in this country," explains Professor Cary Cooper. "People are quick to say, `If it's so essential, how come we coped without it 30 years ago?' But 30 years ago, we had extended families and close-knit communities who acted as natural counsellors. Today, society is too polarised for that." Sarah Simpson claims that one day she would like to run a programme focusing on workplace bullying.

"We all read articles like this about violence and harassment and identify with the victims. But we're all capable of becoming irrational, angry and aggressive ourselves. Just look at the way most people treat traffic wardens. For a happy working environment, employees need to beware of finding themselves on either side of the equation."

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, 0181-876 0305, or www.suzylamplugh.org