Safety first: how to deal with violent or drunken customers

22 September 2018 by
Safety first: how to deal with violent or drunken customers

Whether it's drunken customers, verbal abuse or physical violence, hospitality workers put themselves at risk every time they go to work. Elly Earls finds out how operators can protect their staff

In July, six people were taken into police custody on suspicion of attempted murder at the Hilton Manchester Deansgate after a woman was attacked and left with "lacerations to her neck". Although incidents as serious as this are few and far between, recent research has shown that violence and abuse continue to be significant issues in the hospitality industry.

Following on from the British Retail Consortium's latest retail crime survey, which discovered a spike in violent attacks on staff, insurer NFU Mutual undertook its own hospitality-specific survey, and found that nearly half of consumers (47%) have witnessed some form of abuse towards staff in pubs, restaurants, takeaways or hotels in the past three years, ranging from them being belittled, patronised and sworn at to suffering physical attacks.

"Although hospitality was slightly more positive than retail, if hospitality businesses don't have the right procedures or support in place, then people could well be discouraged from entering the industry," says Darren Seward, hospitality specialist at NFU Mutual.

The repercussions of a serious incident can also go beyond individual members of staff. "When something happens, it can have a hugely detrimental impact on the business; you can have a serious issue where someone is seriously injured and a licence is lost. That would impact on the company, the pub and the reputation of the town," says Steve Baker, a former police inspector with Thames Valley Police. Baker is also chairman of National Pubwatch, a small but active voluntary organisation set up to achieve a safe social drinking environment in licensed premises in the UK.

The biggest risks

Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), says that while she hasn't seen violence and abuse worsening in the industry, incidents can happen, which is why she believes it's crucial for a body like the BBPA to provide guidance for operators. She adds that because hospitality is an industry where a "controlled substance" is served, it's important for people to be protected.

The first thing operators should do is carry out a risk assessment (the BBPA's free Managing Safety in Pubs guide includes a template). Risk factors include social tension and rivalry, frustration over waiting to be served, overcrowding and discomfort, queues at the door and refused entry, removal of glasses that are not empty, and failure to clear tables.

As glass can be an easily available improvised weapon in licensed premises, a risk-based approach should always be taken when it comes to glassware too, whether that's through frequent collection of glasses and bottles, and toughened glass or glass alternatives for outdoor areas and special events.

Preventative measures

There are currently more than 650 local Pubwatch schemes registered with National Pubwatch, which helps them get set up and provides best practice guidance on everything from conflict management to fire safety.

For Frank Marnell, chairman of Chester Pubwatch and former landlord of the now demolished Watergate Inn in Chester, Pubwatch is the only tool available to pub, restaurant and hotel owners to keep people who are likely to cause trouble out of their premises.

"Licensed premises - whether they be off-licences, restaurants, hotels or pubs - need to stick together and ban individuals who have already caused trouble, making it a safe environment, not only for their staff but also for their customers," he says.

Seward says other preventative measures to take include making ­phones with an emergency contact number available in all areas, closely monitoring alcohol sales and ensuring procedures for requesting ID for under-18s are well understood, avoiding lone working (especially early in the morning and late at night), and hotels reviewing times when their lobbies are open and when their doors are locked.

Procedures, policies and training

The problem with alcohol, says Michael Kheng, owner of Kurnia Licensing & Training Consultants and East Midlands regional representative for National Pubwatch, is that it affects different people in different ways and there's no way of predicting when something is going to happen.

"You don't know what happened four or five hours ago at home. If someone comes in after an argument, the situation flares up and a member of staff deals with it in the wrong way, then they could be on the receiving end," he says. "Whereas if they deal with it correctly, hopefully the situation will be defused."

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shutterstock 1069513592

NFU's research shows that almost nine out of 10 consumers expect staff in the hospitality sector to have had the training to handle an incident, yet nearly half (45%) of the customer-facing businesses that were surveyed reveal that they are not actively taking any measures to protect their staff members.

Seward says there are a number of procedures that should be routine for hospitality businesses. "First, employees should be made fully aware of the risk of violence and aggression during their induction and what they should do in those circumstances," he advises.

This could be raising the alarm or referring any issues immediately to the duty manager, particularly where staff are young and inexperienced. "Managers are usually more able to defuse a situation and won't hesitate to call the police where necessary," Seward says.

A policy should also be in force to deal with customers who have too much to drink, and all staff who serve alcohol must be aware of this and given adequate training to deal with this type of customer.

Training courses are available through the BIIAB and ACAS, while National Pubwatch is in the process of creating a series of short videos on topics including conflict management that are available on its website. Some local Pubwatch schemes also offer their members discounted rates on training courses or run their own workshops.

"Chester does a training night every year, and we get about 160 people coming along to take part in six to eight different workshops," Marnell says. "Not all of them are bar staff - some are glass collectors or cleaners - but they all need to know that there is protection out there and it's called Pubwatch."

Another excellent resource is the HSE Executive website, and local authorities can provide guidance and support to businesses in their area looking to develop training and security schemes too.

"A good first port of call would be to contact your local council to see what type of support they offer, particularly for reporting incidents and devising safety plans," advises UKHospitality. "Businesses should remember that one of the reasons local authorities exist, and why they receive funding, is to provide this kind of support for businesses in their areas."

shutterstock 362651360
shutterstock 362651360

Where to get support

If an incident does happen, it's crucial that any decisions should have the full support of senior managers in the aftermath. "Incidents should be treated very seriously and support given to employees," Seward stresses.

This could range from a simple discussion with the line manager or the HR department to ascertain whether an employee has been significantly affected by an abusive or violent incident, to specialist counselling. The Licensed Trade Charity's free helpline comes highly recommended by the BBPA.

Kheng believes it's also important to learn from every incident. "I find that some people who have been abused and attacked in licensed premises have actually taken a step in the right direction by learning how to control situations or putting management policies in place to deal with aggressive situations," he says. "Assessing what happened and what measures should be put in place can stop similar things happening in the future."

Well-handled incidents can also have a positive impact on a business's reputation and enhance the likelihood that customers will return. Talking about premises they regularly visit, 40% of consumers surveyed by NFU would be just as likely or even more likely to visit if an incident was handled well as they would feel very safe.

Policy for protection

According to NFU's research, the vast majority of consumers (86%) agree with the prospect of legislation changes to give better protection for hospitality workers.

The survey respondents are not alone. In June, a bill to create new offences for assaulting or abusing workers in the retail sector or who sell age-restricted products such as alcohol received enough support from MSPs to be introduced into the Scottish Parliament.

The BBPA, which supported the bill, will be watching with interest to see if it's picked up elsewhere. Simmonds adds: "Anything that protects the staff that work in the industry is something we would support."

Marnell, too, thinks the government needs to be tougher on offenders. "The pub industry is a really hard industry to be in at the moment, which means it's more important than ever to safeguard our staff and our customers."

Top tips for staff• Carry out a risk assessment of scenarios and situations likely to cause tension.
• - Install CCTV cameras.
• - Join a local support scheme to pre-empt crime and antisocial behaviour.
• - Ensure telephones and emergency numbers are readily available.
• - Closely monitor alcohol sales.
• - At their induction, ensure employees are made fully aware of what to do if aggression or violence should erupt.
• - Put in place policies and training to deal with customers who drink too much.
• - Learn from every incident and provide support to staff.

Flashpoint role-playing

At sister brands Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, the safety and welfare of staff is paramount. "From time to time incidents can happen which put staff into situations where they must react to aggressive or challenging behaviour," says group people and development director Lindsay Southward.

"We train managers and staff through classroom training on critical incident, crisis management and complaint handling. We use role-play scenarios to simulate situations and talk about the best way to handle them.

"Our critical incident training was written in connection with ex-police officers who have insight into areas such as armed robbery, suicides, death or injury in the workplace. This meant that staff could hear first-hand advice on what to do, think and feel."

The hotel also has lone working and violence at work policies.




British Beer & Pub Association

Licensed Trade Charity

National Pubwatch


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