It’s surreal that, a year into the pandemic, lockdowns are still happening with no real apparent end in sight. The latest has business owners and managers not only thinking about how to survive while operating at reduced capacity (or none at all), but also how to keep staff morale up while dealing with frustrated customers who dump their frustrations into our premises.
Unfortunately, employee abuse at the hands of customers is on the rise in retail and other small businesses. COVID fatigue and further restrictions can bring out the worst in some people. Talk to any local service or retail business owner or staff, and chances are they have at least one story to share about customer pushback, verbal abusive and aggressive behaviour.
Customers, and frankly all of us, are experiencing frustration and anxiety that has been building for a full year. Nowadays, even a “Would you like a facemask?” or “Please follow the directional markings” can trigger an aggressive reaction.
I get it. Facemasks are annoying, and following lines and arrows on the floor of a shop, Mario Bros.’ style, is incomprehensible at times – but at the end of the day, staff and business owners are just following rules imposed by governments.
Meredith Brown, a staffer at Carben Food & Drink, agrees. “I had a woman scream in my face ‘I’m two metres away’ when I politely reminded her to wear her mask as she walked through the restaurant. She then sat in her car with her husband and young son all laughing as the son flipped me off.”
Small-business owners and their staff are stressed and struggling as is. Dealing with rude and defiant customers for no fault of our own deflates and demoralizes even the most resilient person.
The service and retail industry is experiencing an alarming labour shortage; finding and retaining staff has been nearly impossible during the past year. A combination of fear, dealing with irate customers and inconsistent job security due to lockdowns makes it an unattractive career choice.
Rebekah-Lynn Banville, former guest service employee at the Rideau Centre, knows this too well. “I had someone spit at me when I asked them to put on their mask.” This was enough for her to hand in her resignation and move on to a different job. Who would blame her?
In my own retail businesses, we have had customers banging on the front doors demanding to be let in when we clearly have signage that explains our maximum capacity as mandated by provincial regulations. We have been yelled at, sworn at, had money thrown at the faces of staff from people not wanting to wait in line and leaving with merchandise they didn’t fully pay for. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What happened to “We are all in this together?” It is embarrassing to go to shops and be reminded we need to show simple human decency. More and more are posting “Abuse to our employees will not be tolerated” signage, such as the one at Happy Goat coffee shop on Elgin Street.
The new province-wide lockdown imposes tougher restrictions than did the previous “grey zone.” With it comes a ban on indoor/outdoor dining; a rule that non-essential retail locations – including big-box and liquor stores – must operate at 25-per-cent capacity; and no personal care services, such as hairdressers, for the next four weeks.
Lineups, longer-than-normal wait times, facemasks, hand sanitizing – this is our new reality for the foreseeable future.
Next time you feel sassiness bubbling up due to the ridiculousness of the world we are living in, stop yourself and ask: “Is it really the business owner/employee’s fault?” Kindness and compassion go a long way and are contagious.
Taking out your fear and frustration over misinformation or government regulations on small businesses and our employees helps no one. People deserve respect and progressive communication, not to be put down for trying to help our community by following rules imposed on all of us. Safety and dignity at work are everyone’s right.
Karla Briones is a local immigrant entrepreneur and owner of Global Pet Foods Kanata & Hintonburg; Freshii Westboro; founder of the Immigrants Developing Entrepreneurs Academy; and an independent business consultant. The opinions here are her own. Her column appears every two weeks.