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As Holidays Draw Near, Preparedness Training is Critical for Worker Safety and Security

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We’re nearing the holidays, and what is often dubbed the “most wonderful time of the year” in the U.S. can also be the most stressful and chaotic time for retailers. It’s possible that the traditional stress of the holidays will be compounded this season by the societal stressors people are experiencing from COVID-19 health concerns, inflation and social unrest.

While the pandemic dissuaded many from in-person shopping last year, this season’s return to “normal” could also mean a return of holiday shopping crowds, potentially sparking violent clashes between customers and workers. As retailers struggle to hire seasonal staff and prepare their employees for an uptick in frenzied shopping, widespread pandemic-related trends and opposition to health-related mandates make it especially important that workers remain vigilant and prepared to respond appropriately to potential workplace violence this holiday season.

While holiday spending is forecasted to increase by 7% this year, increased demand is only good when there are products to buy and sufficient staff to assist customers.

Supply chain issues throughout the system have left many retailers with empty store shelves at a critical time in the year. Conflicts are bound to arise as disgruntled customers search for the latest gaming system or laptop, only to realize they’ve arrived too late. While not all customer conflicts turn physically violent, verbal arguments and harassment can still be threatening and do damage to employees’ sense of well-being and the retailer’s reputation.

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Store workers are also being stretched thin to accomplish their daily jobs, even without the uptick in holiday shopping. Labor shortages have impacted nearly every industry, but frontline workers in retail have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s stressors since the beginning. NPR reported that retail workers have quit at an average rate of 4% per month throughout 2021 due to the added stress of frantic schedules and constant understaffing. That stress can lead some workers to commit acts of workplace violence, which is defined as “verbal threats and abuse, physical threats or attacks, and homicide resulting in injury, property damage, fear or work impediment.”

While it’s somber to think about, you can’t discuss the risks associated with holiday shopping and mass gatherings without adding the potential of an active shooter event. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 2021 is on track to be the deadliest year on record for active shooter events, and most of these events take place in spaces open to the public like retailers, bars, and restaurants.

While active shooter events are difficult to predict, shooters often target places with which they are familiar and have high densities of people, such as a crowded shopping mall or grocery store. We’ve also learned from real-world incidents that people rarely “snap” and commit serious violence. In most cases, people are on a pathway to violence, and it is on this pathway that trained co-workers, family and friends can identify troubling behavioral warning signs, presenting opportunities to get the troubled person emotional support or, depending on the severity, notify law enforcement.

These threats aren’t listed to cause alarm, but rather to outline the risks that retailers may be facing this season. The focus of the industry has been on creating a safe, hygienic environment for their patrons and staff during COVID-19. It’s also critical that all retailers offer preparedness training to their employees now — ahead of the holiday rush — so that they are prepared to respond to any verbal or physical attack they may encounter.

Here are four reasons every retailer should ensure that all employees have completed workplace violence and active shooter preparedness training:

  1. Employees can identify and de-escalate potential threats. Preparedness training will teach employees situational awareness, focusing on their surroundings and knowing how to respond if a threat presents itself. That threat could take many forms, such as a conflict between two customers escalating in volume or an unknown person acting suspiciously in the parking lot. Whatever the case, trained employees can identify potential threats and use proper de-escalation techniques to regain control of a situation before it turns violent, or to buy enough time to notify security personnel.
  2. Employees can respond appropriately if violence does strike. Sometimes violent encounters are unavoidable. When violence does strike, training ensures that employees know how to react to protect themselves and customers. In the crucial first seconds of an attack, responding quickly and decisively is essential to safety.
  3. Training offers peace of mind and can aid in employee retention. A study by the Society of Human Resource Managers showed that one in seven employees don’t feel safe at work, and that 30% of employees and 19% of managers don’t feel prepared for workplace violence events. Preparedness training can ease the anxiety employees feel around holiday shopping crowds, helping them to feel safer and more confident knowing that their employer cares about their personal well-being.
  4. Training helps minimize harm to your business reputation and bottom line. By the numbers, physical security threats can result in a 50% decrease in productivity for an organization, 20% to 40% employee turnover, and an average of $500,000 in out-of-court settlements. In addition, it’s impossible to put a price on the value of an organization’s people and the public’s trust, both of which are difficult to regain after they are lost.

Too often it’s only after a company goes through a tragic “eye-opening experience” that it emphasizes the need to recognize and respond to anomalous behaviors. I encourage all retailers, and really any business employing frontline workers, to be proactive and offer preparedness training to every employee.

Let’s make sure everyone makes it “home for the holidays” safely.


William Flynn is co-founder of The Power of Preparedness, a next generation e-learning provider of industry-specific active shooter and workplace violence preparedness and response training. Flynn previously served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection. He can be followed on LinkedIn, @William Flynn.

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