Handling Difficult Situations


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Feb 28, 2008
Near Philadelphia, PA
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Did you read about the Starbucks customer who was run over by a car while trying to stop two thieves from stealing a Starbucks tip jar?

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/s ... enDocument

The last independent coffee shop that I worked in had no policy regarding what to do in the event of a robbery or how to deal with an angry or intoxicated customer who comes into the shop and causes a problem. Actually, they never bothered to make an employee manual, and we just "winged it" most of the time.

Can anyone share what they've done to make sure that the employees and customers are safe? Calling 911 is obvious to almost everyone, (as long as they can get to the phone), and security cameras won't help much... until it's all over.

Have your employees been instructed as to what to say and how to react in sticky situations?

Insurance should cover most things, including robbery, so I suppose the primary objective of any policy, is to ensure the safety of yourself and your employees.

In a robbery, co-operate fully, give them what they want...it's only money. then call the police.

In any situation with an angry or intoxicated customer, staff should use their judgement as to whether they are in physical danger. If so call 911 and keep yourself safe. they should only approach the customer if they feel

1. They are in no danger of physical harm
2. They feel capable/competent to handle the situation

I think it's very difficult to have a policy that says do X or Y or Z in certain situations and leaves you open to problems. I once worked for a large corporate and their policy in the event of fire was to leave the building and only attempt to tackle the fire with an extinguisher if: it went something like "unless you felt competent to do so and you felt you would be in no danger". Effectively leaving the decision about personal safety down to the employee, as any other firm guidance would have been risky for the employer.

I think you need to be very careful in any guidance to employees, thart potentially could place them in a dangerous situation.
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Thanks for your reply.

I'm wondering if an average employee (or even a coffee shop owner) would feel confident in dealing with an angry or intoxicated person unless he or she is trained about what to do in those difficult siutations.

Maybe employee manuals should include lists of things to do and things to not do. Things like your tone of voice, body language, and what you say could make all the difference in whether an angry customer throws a hot beverage in your face, or if he (or she) calms down enough to realize what he's doing and leaves the store.

My recommedation is simply to have a policy to call the police in all circumstances. ALL. Give anyone whatever they may want, the call the police. I am not only concerned with the safety of my employees but also my customers.

I wouldn't put "body language" and stuff like that down - it's just confusing and if something happens, like one of the employees got too aggressive because the manual said, "do this body language" and someone else got hurt, of course you can be liable for that and be prepared in the worst case to have that manual looked over at the courthouse.

I'm feeling pessimistic today.
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I found some interesting things when I was looking up "violence in the workplace." Most of what I found obviously applys to dealing with other employees, but it also can help anyone deal with a difficult customer.

I'm not sure if it should be in an employee manual, but it would be a good thing to use for on-going training.

I like the suggestion to make up a pre-arranged code word to alert the other employees that you're having a problem so they can call the police.

Here is some of what I found:

Physical Signs That a Person May Be Becoming Violent

Sometimes it is not what a person says, but what his or her body is “doing.” Use caution if you see someone who shows one or more of the following “non-verbal” body language signs.

• Red-faced or white-faced
• Sweating
• Pacing, restless, or repetitive movements
• Trembling or shaking
• Clenched jaws or fists
• Exaggerated or violent gestures
• Change in voice
• Loud talking or chanting
• Shallow, rapid breathing
• Scowling, sneering or use of abusive language
• Glaring or avoiding eye contact
• Violating your personal space (they get too close)

What to Do When Violence Occurs:

•Try to stay calm. Raising your own voice may increase the anxiety of a potentially violent person.

•Speak slowly, softly, and clearly to reduce the momentum of the situation.

•Listen empathetically by really paying attention to what the person is saying. Let the person know that you will help them within your ability to do so or you will send for additional help.

•Do not agree using distorted statements or attempt to argue.

•Avoid defensive statements. This is not the time to place blame on the enraged person.

•Ask the belligerent person to leave the area and come back when they feel calmer.

•Ask questions to help regain control of the conversation.

•Ask uninvolved parties to leave the area if this can be done safely.

•Use the prearranged code word to alert your coworker(s) to call Security.

•Never challenge, try to bargain, or make promises you cannot keep.

•Inform the person of the consequences of any violent behavior.

•Avoid challenging body language such as placing your hands on your hips, moving toward the person, or staring directly at them. If seated, remain in your chair and do not turn your back on the individual.

•Do not physically touch an outraged person, or try to force him or her to leave.

•Move away from any object, such as scissors or heavy objects that could be used as a weapon.

•Calmly ask the person to place any weapons in a neutral location while you continue to talk to them.

•Never attempt to disarm or accept a weapon from the person in question. Weapon retrieval should only be done by a police officer or security personnel.