Protect staff from abusive shoppers

Sound policies and practices can back up law

Beth Johnston
Beth Johnston is an Employment Associate in the People, Reward and Mobility team at Dentons UK and Middle East LLP, based in Scotland.

IT is not uncommon for retail workers to experience abusive behaviour from customers, and there is growing pressure on employers to be proactive in preventing such behaviour.

What legislation is in place to tackle abuse towards retail workers?

The Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act became law in February 2021, aiming to give greater legal protection to retail workers.

The Act applies to retail workers while they are doing their job (for example, in shops, bars and restaurants).

The Act introduced a specific criminal offence of assaulting, threatening, abusing, obstructing or hindering retail workers.

Further, under the Act, if an offence was committed because the worker was applying an age restriction, such as asking for proof of age when a customer tries to buy alcohol, this counts as an “aggravation”, meaning the offence would potentially be more serious.

What else is the government going to do?

Employers have long had a general duty to protect their staff.

However, at present, an employer’s liability for the actions of others is, in most circumstances, limited to the acts of its own employees and does not extend to the acts of third parties.

In response to a recent consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, the UK government has proposed to introduce new legislation which will:

• impose a duty on employers to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace;
• reintroduce liability on employers for third-party harassment;
• extend the time limit to bring a claim under the Equality Act 2010 from three to six months.

Under the proposed new legislation, employers who fail to take proactive steps to prevent harassment in the workplace (whether from employees or third parties, including customers) would be liable and may face employment tribunal claims.

In light of the consultation, there is a growing expectation that employers should revisit their anti-harassment policies and procedures to make sure they are fit for purpose, and that they are taking appropriate steps to prevent harassment and abusive behaviour from occurring, whether this be from other employees or third parties.

What internal initiatives could employers implement?

There are a range of internal initiatives an employer can take to help protect their retail staff from abuse and harassment. CCTV cameras and, if appropriate, body cameras can be an effective way of protecting staff as they act as a deterrent to customers who may otherwise act in an abusive manner.

Employers are also being encouraged to use in-store messaging to remind customers to respect staff and signal the employer’s zero-tolerance approach to abusive behaviour. This can take various forms, including loudspeaker announcements or visual messages on signs or displays.

Employers should also have an established policy in place for when customers become abusive, threatening or violent.

This should cover how employees can recognise and minimise the risk of abusive behaviour from customers, how they should respond to abusive customers (including de-escalation tactics), and how to report the behaviour and to whom, including when to involve the police.

From an employee relations perspective, having a clear supportive policy that is implemented well and endorsed by senior staff and managers can give employees a sense of comfort in knowing that their employer supports a zero-tolerance approach to abusive behaviour and considers their safety and wellbeing as paramount.


Do you have a business, property or legal question or issue that you would like to know more about?

Contact Scottish Grocer and we’ll put it to an expert. Call Giles Blair on 0141 567 6074 or email