Dealing with customer aggression in the workplace

What is patron aggression or violence? 

Patron aggression and violence has been defined as incidents where venue staff or others in attendance are abused, threatened, or assaulted in circumstances related to their work, involving an explicit or implicit challenge to their safety, wellbeing, or health. Patron aggression and violence covers a wide range of behaviours and actions, including:

• verbal aggression, including rudeness, raising voice, and yelling, swearing 

• attempts at intimidation and threats 

• abusive letters, phone calls, emails, social media posts 

• online trolling, via social media or electronic means 

• threatening or inappropriate body language

• destruction of property or possessions  

• assault or armed assault 

• forcible confinement or false imprisonment 

• acts of indecency, sexual assault 

• stalking or loitering.

What are the warning signs of escalating aggression and violence? 

It is rare for violence to come out of the blue. Escalation of agitation and aggression usually happens over a period of time and may happen as a single event. Some warning signs of escalating aggression include: 

• veiled and overt threats 

• violent gestures such as pointing, swearing, verbal abuse and hitting objects 

• intense staring or avoiding eye contact 

• irritability, restlessness, repetitive movements, agitation, pacing, inability to sit still 

• refusal to communicate, remain calm, leave or withdrawal 

• a history of violence. 

What early intervention strategies can de-escalate violence? 

While many patrons can express anger, it is usually resolved with respectful communication, and very few customers react violently. Patrons can sometimes become aggressive because of unmet needs; they don’t understand how or why they cannot seem to get what they want. Often, understanding this and explaining makes a difference. If you believe you are not in immediate danger, you may try to de-escalate the situation by: 

• appearing calm and remaining respectful, controlled, and confident, 

• not raising your voice in response to them raising theirs, do the opposite speak slower and quieter little by little

• using reflective questioning – demonstrate that you are listening by confirming the message is right (eg ‘You need a payout, is that correct?’) 

• being clear and direct in your language, and clearly and simply explaining your intentions – complex questions or concepts may increase anxiety 

• monitoring your own body language and avoiding acts like crossing your arms and intense eye contact – these can be perceived as threatening 

• remind and assure customers your actions are in their best interest

• engaging the patron by asking questions that are likely to elicit a ‘yes’ response can be an effective way to briefly summarise the customer’s perceptions and views as you understand them, with questions at the end such as ‘Have I got that right?’ or ‘Is that what you mean?’. A sequence of five or six questions where the customer is answering ‘yes’ is a powerful way to increase the likelihood that an aggressive patron will see you as being on their side, even if they remain angry about the issue 

• Being solution focused, once you have identified the unmet need, talk about how it could be resolved, ask the patron to solve the problem they are concerned about by identifying as many positive solutions as they can think of to address the problem which will help them achieve their goals. Repeat these back to them rather than arguing about the pros and cons of each option. This may lead to compromise between parties and avoid a ‘black and white’ or ‘us and them’ situation.

How can your venue respond to an act, or threat, of aggression or violence?

Your venue should have an agreed policy in place about how to manage incidents of patron aggression and/or violence. If you are in an unsafe situation, your immediate response should be to follow a response policy. This response policy may include:

• calmly asking the aggressor to leave 

• activating a duress alarm, phone alert or contacting security via your radio

• where possible retreating to a safe location and alerting other people on site to the risk 

• ask for help from security guards, co-workers, or your venue manager

• calling 000 for police. 

Follow-up response should include debriefing, reporting, and investigating. It is important to debrief the venue staff after any violent or threatening event. This will help ensure the wellbeing of those involved and give everyone the opportunity to discuss the event and identify any triggers or possible future safeguards. This can generally be done as a group exercise with the venue manager; however, depending on the circumstances, some team members may require additional individual support. You should also check in with any patrons or visitors who were present at the event. An incident report should be completed by staff involved in any event and reported to your venue manager. 

Your workplace should have a process to formally review incidents on a regular and ongoing basis. There should be an established workplace committee with the responsibility to review all incidents, not only those relating to patron violence. The benefits of such a committee (or similar) include: 

• consistency of approach by the venue in response to events 

• clear delegation of responsibilities for initiating incident review and follow-up actions 

• the opportunity for all staff to participate and be consulted 

• the chance to embed a culture of safety and continuous improvement in the venue.

The committee (or people delegated to review incidents at your venue) should investigate the event, considering: 

• what happened? 

• factors that may have triggered the event 

• the ongoing risks 

• if the incident could have been prevented. 

Determine if any changes or additional safeguards need to be put in place at the venue as a result of the investigation. If you implement changes, you should monitor their outcome, considering: 

• what worked, and why 

• what did not work, and why 

• if the change is sustainable 

• what alternatives can be trialled. 

Any changes should be included in an amended workplace policy.

Flagging patron files

If your venue has a rewards program system where you can add notes (such as Jackpot Club) or patron profiles, a note should be made to flag those who demonstrate aggressive or violent behaviour. If this is not in place at your venue, all staff should be notified and made aware via the staff communications book.

Determining ongoing service arrangements

If the staff and venue manager believe the behaviour or act warrants it, you may also consider: 

• giving the patron a formal warning

• placing the patron on an acceptable behaviour agreement

• temporary or permanent barring from the venue

A template for the acceptable behaviour agreement can be downloaded here-

What else would you need to do?

Your venue should: 

• keep a detailed factual report of any barring orders, including a copy of any letter sent to the patron

• store the barring order in the barring records book, and ensure all staff are informed.

• agree upon the venue’s response to a violation of the barring order

What are our work health and safety responsibilities to employees and visitors? 

All workplaces have a responsibility under WHS laws to provide a safe working environment for staff, contractors, and visitors. We must ensure, so far as is ‘reasonably practicable’, that people are not put at risk by work carried out as part of the business. Your venue is therefore obliged to identify, and eliminate or control, risks associated with patron aggression and violence, as far as is reasonably practicable. 

How can we create a safe work environment and team? 

By working together as a team and being familiar with your workplace policies and taking opportunities for training, we can provide a safer environment for your team, visitors, and patrons. These are the keys to a well-managed, consistent response when preventing and managing patron aggression and violence. Key strategies to create a safe practice may include: 

• having a zero-tolerance policy towards violence and abusive or threatening behaviour 

• displaying signs in your venues that inform everyone of your zero-tolerance policy 

• building a safety culture with staff members

• consulting with the team on safety concerns and initiatives 

• assessing, and regularly reassessing, your venue’s risks, considering your patron cohort and the physical environment 

• clearly defining what acts and behaviours require a response, particularly in relation to a zero-tolerance policy 

• setting out clear steps for your team to take when dealing with aggressive or violent patrons 

• considering the layout of your venue, i.e. having two exit points from each room and avoiding having patrons positioned between staff and the exit (this may not be practical in some venues) 

• having a duress alarm under the counter and radios between all staff and security guards

• installing CCTV monitoring to protect all staff 

• policies that all staff and associates ensure no team member is left alone on the premises at any time 

• ensuring (as far as possible) that outside areas such as walkways to car parks are well lit, staff are accompanied when leaving the venue and installing security fencing 

• Conducting thorough staff inductions and regular training on the venue’s incident response procedures.