States are slowly reopening businesses around the country. Employers are working hard to keep their customers and employees safe from possible exposure to COVID-19 by following the recommended public health guidelines.
But what happens when customers outright refuse to follow these prevention and safety measures — namely, wearing a face mask when they enter a business?
Wearing a face covering is recommended by public health officials as a primary way to reduce the spread of the COVID-19. With all 50 states mandating some sort of mask policy — and dozens of retail chains requiring them to be worn — front-line workers have become the de facto enforcer of #Coronavirus safety measures. And, when customers refuse to wear masks, workers across the country have found themselves in awkward, precarious, and sometimes dangerous situations ranging everything from customers spitting on them, using foul language, and other aggressions.
Under the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), employers have a general duty to provide a safe workplace for employees. “There needs to be a clear and concise policy adopted” explains Ryan Kearney, General Counsel at Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “And all employees need to be aware of this policy and adhere to it — even a part-time, front-line employee who only works two days a week.” Once a policy is in place for preventing and, if needed, reporting aggressive interactions, a business should spend significant time training its employees, especially those most likely to interact with customers.
“Training is crucial for employees so they’re able to confidently and safely address situations if they occur,” said Kearney. “Sending a consistent message is important. If a customer comes in one day and doesn’t have to wear a mask, but then returns the following week and is told by an employee they need to wear one, there’s suddenly confusion and the customer may react negatively.”
When it doubt, ask. Some employers, especially smaller businesses, may not have a formal training program. But the bottom line is that you, as a front-line worker, should feel comfortable knowing how to handle the situation.
Employers should utilize signage outside their stores, making it clear to customers what their policies are. “Consistent messaging on signage and notifications is crucial to help empower front-line workers,” said Kearney. By doing this, workers have the ability to easily refer to guidelines that support mask-wearing if they’re questioned by customers.
These are new rules - and like forgetting to bring a reusable grocery bag, sometimes people simply forget to cover up. Don't take it as a personal affront if someone is not complying. There are medical conditions that make wearing a mask difficult, or present other health risks to the wearer.
Work with customers who do not or cannot wear a mask to find alternate options that keep everyone safe and keeps the business going. Discuss these options with your employer, like curbside pickup instead of in-store shopping, or additional space while those individuals are inside.
Approaching a customer who is not wearing a mask can be intimidating - and the anxiety that the encounter could potentially turn confrontational makes this especially challenging. What can you do to minimize a possible situation if it seems like a customer is becoming hostile?
“It’s imperative to avoid a confrontation from happening in the first place,” said Kearney. “Always treat people with dignity,” said Kearney. “And listen to what the customer says to you. Having empathy is key here — there may be a reason why the customer chose to not wear a mask.”
For their own safety, workers should be aware of body language and signs of rising tension with a customer. Be aware of how a person’s voice sounds — a tight, clenched-jaw could be an indication of rising frustration. Pointing fingers, hands-on hips, and getting too close to someone else's face are other signals of an escalating issue.
If you have a situation that has escalated and the customer refuses to comply, get help from a manager. It’s not up to the worker to de-escalate an aggressive situation. Kearney states “There’s no excuse the employee should be by themselves to handle the situation. Workers should not be expected to be subjected to violence at any level. At that point, law enforcement needs to step handle the situation.”
Employers should never put workers in the dangerous position of an escalating confrontation, or expect employees to enforce mask policies, but recently this issue has become complicated. What about the famous business motto, “the customer is always right”? “Safety is non-negotiable,” said Kearney. “When a customer’s actions place the business and others at risk, the customer is no longer right.”
What do you think about face covering policies? Share your thoughts in the comments below.