Tackling harassment in retail is steadily rising up the agenda, but what can firms do to keep staff safe? Foot Anstey’s Nathan Peacey and Patrick Howarth investigate.

From verbal abuse and physical assaults to sexual harassment, there is a shockingly high level of offensive behaviour directed at retail staff.

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of shop workers have experienced offensive behaviour at work since the pandemic, causing stress (45%), anxiety (43%) and a loss of self-esteem (19%), our research has found. 

In June, we participated in Retail Week’s General Counsel Summit 2022 where we hosted a roundtable and led the panel discussion Tackling Harassment in Retail. 

The session looked at the role legal professionals and general counsels play in protecting a retailer’s greatest asset: its workforce. It examined the challenges in creating a safe and supportive environment from the shopfloor and throughout the organisation. 

Speakers from Costco, the Co-op and Retail Trust were all in firm agreement that a fundamental change is needed and the industry should work together to better combat the issue of harassment in retail. 

What needs to be done

Retailers as employers are not exempt from criticism, and businesses need to step up in order to drive this change. Without doing something, and doing something serious, then the problem will only intensify. 

Retail workers need support from their employers, particularly when it comes to management support, training, banning offenders and increasing security.

As one general counsel remarked at the panel discussion, we also need to put our own house in order. 

Despite the traditional saying that ‘the customer is always right’, in the retail space this should not always be true as some customers’ behaviour can be harmful to the wellbeing of a retailer’s employees. 

This damaging thought process can even hinder attraction to those that might be interested in a retail career and it is up to us, as decision-makers in the sector, to drive change and make sure employees and potential employees see the steps being taken to protect them.

Retailers also need to review both how they deal with complaints and how they treat employees when these are raised. 

One retailer indicated that they deal with at least 100 complaints of inappropriate behaviour from staff across their portfolio a day.

It is essential we look at strengthening our response and resolve when supporting individuals in the retail industry, which is why we are consciously having open conversations on the topic of harassment. 

How to drive change

Earlier this year, we joined forces with the UK’s retail industry charity, the Retail Trust, to launch a new certification aimed at protecting and reassuring shop workers in the face of rising levels of abuse and inappropriate behaviour.

The Retailers Against Harassment Certification has been designed to create safer working environments for staff. 

Retailers looking to achieve certification will be assessed across multiple aspects, including the policies and procedures already in place to deal with harassment, leadership’s commitment to tackling the problem, employee experiences and how complaints are handled.

Responsible retailers are already aware of the problem and working hard to address it. This certification is an opportunity to gauge the efficacy of their actions and show their teams they are taking this issue seriously.

Click here to learn more

Nathan Peacey, Foot Anstey

Nathan Peacey is head of retail and consumer at Foot Anstey

Patrick Howarth, Foot Anstey

Patrick Howarth is a partner at Foot Anstey