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Store Workers to Get New Training: How to Handle Fights Over Masks

Many retail workers will receive a new sort of preparation for this year’s holiday season: training on how to manage conflicts with customers who resist mask-wearing, social distancing and store capacity limits.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group representing about 16,000 retailers, said on Thursday that it had teamed up with the Crisis Prevention Institute, a company focused on reducing workplace violence, to help retail workers learn how to prevent and de-escalate shopper disputes that emerge from pandemic restrictions.

The training puts a spotlight on the unexpected challenges that store workers have been forced to grapple with during the pandemic. Most retailers were early to require masks and distancing in stores, but some shoppers have flouted the rules, putting employees in uncomfortable and sometimes frightening positions. Altercations with belligerent customers have regularly gone viral on social media this year and have even led to violence, spooking staff and other shoppers just as stores try to drum up foot traffic.

In the online training, “one of the major scenarios is around an employee asking a customer to wear a mask, and he reacts,” said Adam Lukoskie, vice president of the NRF Foundation, the trade group’s nonprofit arm. “There’s another scenario where a mother and child are there and are upset this gentleman is not wearing a mask so then the employee has to help make peace.”

Susan Driscoll, president of the Crisis Prevention Institute, said the online training program and accompanying Covid-19 Customer Conflict Prevention credential are “really focused on how to engage your thinking brain over your emotional brain.” It teaches employees how to recognize what stage of a crisis a consumer may be in, and what they can do to defuse the situation, she said.

ImageShoppers who flout the rules put store workers in uncomfortable and sometimes frightening positions. The online training is intended to help defuse those situations.
Shoppers who flout the rules put store workers in uncomfortable and sometimes frightening positions. The online training is intended to help defuse those situations.Credit…Crisis Prevention Institute

“It is very practical,” Ms. Driscoll said. For example, she said, if a shopper is very distressed, the program offers tips on “how to verbally and nonverbally communicate empathy and support” while wearing a mask.

Or, Ms. Driscoll said, “when someone is defensive and losing their rationality, you give them a choice or set a limit.”

“Say, ‘Would you like to get out of the line and talk this through, or would you like to talk to a manager?'” she continued. “Giving them a choice puts them back in control, and you get them out of the way and out of the line from customers and help de-escalate the crisis.”

The Crisis Prevention Institute has focused on training health care workers and employees working with children with special needs but was intrigued by the situation facing retailers, Ms. Driscoll said, adding that inquiries to the organization for de-escalation information have doubled since the pandemic started.

The National Retail Federation said it did not have data on disputes at retailers. But its research showed that consumers wanted to know what measures retailers were taking to ensure their safety in stores, said Bill Thorne, executive director of the NRF Foundation.

“This is one additional opportunity for our retailers to say: ‘Our staff members are trained. If there is an incident, they will handle it and you will be safe shopping,'” Mr. Thorne said. The program adds to training at several large retailers, he said.


The Cotton Gallery, a clothing store in Provincetown, Mass. Research shows consumers want to know what retailers are doing to ensure their safety.Credit…M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

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