Workers must be able to de-escalate situations before they become heated and possibly violent, a recent client told us.

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are requiring customers and employees alike to wear face masks. Walmart announced July 15 that face masks would be mandatory for customers, signaling the start of a widespread requirement among retailers and those in other industries. Such mandates stem from elsewhere, too; Law firm Littler maintains a tracker that lists more than 40 states enacting some type of face mask requirement.

Employers tasked with implementing mask mandates — whether they come from legislators or from within — face a hot-button issue, especially in industries like retail, where employees come face-to-face with customers.

Companies will need to rely on front-line employees as they balance customer engagement with face mask enforcement. Employers that trained employees on store operations and policies must now develop lessons on how to de-escalate charged encounters with customers who aren’t wearing masks.

Unmask The Issue

Retailers have long used the motto “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” So customers might treat a store’s face mask rule as simply another requirement. But in the middle of a pandemic, stress levels are high. Couple those stress levels with shoppers’ perceived lack of autonomy and the issue escalates.

Sometimes customers turn their wrath onto employees. The Washington Post reported several instances of employees being berated, assaulted and even killed for enforcing mask rules.

Train to Maintain a Balance

At Walmart, employees in the newly designated role of “health ambassador” are trained to greet customers at the door. The first thing that’s helpful to remember is that because some customers are unable to wear a face-covering due to medical, religious or age reasons, customers will still see some people in their stores not wearing a face covering. They believe their requirement will result in many more people wearing masks in their stores than before, and that’s ultimately what they are aiming for.

video from Walmart’s Training Academy outlines the steps the health ambassador should take when greeting a mask-less customer. Ambassadors should welcome all customers, the video states. If a customer doesn’t have a mask, the employee should bring up the mandate and ask the shopper to put on a face covering. If a customer refuses without referencing age, health or religion, the employee should let the customer proceed into the store but escalate the concern to a manager. The video cautions that the ambassador should not try to keep the customer from entering the store.

The video reminds employees to stay calm. To prepare employees for these encounters, Walmart also uses virtual reality training.

Walmart tapped Strivr to provide this training. The immersive nature of virtual reality makes it suitable for training workers to deal with this kind of situation. You’re trying to give an end-user a flight simulator-like experience where you put the headset on, and you’re going to experience what you experience in the real world.

Using this technology, employees can act out various scenarios, using company protocols. If a customer doesn’t want to [put on a mask], if a customer gets in your face or says something racially insensitive, you’re operationally prepared and emotionally prepared.

Mandate Without a Bite?

Companies that have requirements may differ from each other in how stringently they enforce their mandates. To avoid confrontations, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walgreens, CVS and others will still allow customers who refuse to wear a mask to shop in the stores, CNN reported.

But other companies have strict “no mask, no service” approaches. Southwest Airlines, for example, recently tightened its policy, requiring all customers over the age of 2 to wear a mask, regardless of a medical exception. In a July 20 press release, the airline said: “If a customer is unable to wear a face-covering or mask for any reason, Southwest regrets that we will be unable to transport the individual.”

Strategies for De-Escalation

Regardless of how businesses address customers who refuse to wear a mask, the ideal outcome is to get customers to cooperate before the situation becomes a conflict. The key is recognizing the customer’s heightened stress level and using a “brain-based model” which uses research on human behavior to understand motivation.

  • Status. The employee should maintain the customer’s sense of status by being warm and positive, so the customer does not feel personally attacked or diminished.
  • Certainty. Help the customer feel more certain by providing more information, such as: “we’re asking everyone to do this,” or by outlining when and where the mask needs to be worn.
  • Autonomy. Address the freedom a customer wants to feel. The employee should provide additional options for the customer, such as to shop online or send someone else to shop.
  • Relatedness. The employee should acknowledge that the mask requirement is uncomfortable that they understand how the customer feels.
  • Fairness. Let the customer know they are not being singled out and that this is required in every store.

This approach is called the SCARF method. Employees need to be trained to intentionally send positive SCARF signals to de-escalate how stressful this interaction could be.

When De-Escalation Doesn’t Work

Sometimes, positivity and politeness won’t make customers wear a mask. But letting customers shop without wearing masks can still cause employers trouble. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Walgreens paid $6,000 after receiving eight citations for not enforcing mask mandates imposed by Chicago suburb Cicero, Illinois.

Businesses could face even greater liability if they don’t enforce face mask laws and a customer gets sick. If a customer can prove they contracted the virus in the store and that the store didn’t enforce wearing masks, the customer could file a claim of negligence against the retailer. If they are lax on enforcement and turning a blind eye, they breached their duty to create a safe environment for customers.

Although a company should try every strategy to diffuse a confrontation, if a customer refuses to follow regulations to wear a mask, employers can have the most experienced manager let the customer know that they are trespassing and require them to leave. If the customer won’t go or shows signs of violence, the manager should call store security or the local police.

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