How to Handle Mask Fights

Retail workers struggle with enforcement of mandatory mask rules with unmasked shoppers.

October 16, 2020

WASHINGTON—How can retail workers approach unmasked customers safely? That’s one question the National Retail Federation (NRF) hopes will be answered by its new training program. With partner the Crisis Prevention Institute, the trade group wants to train store employees with tips on preventing and de-escalating customer angst over pandemic restrictions, such as capacity limitations, wearing masks and social distancing, NRF announced yesterday.

Altercations over wearing masks inside stores have become increasingly violent, scaring other shoppers and staff alike. The new online training seeks to help in those situations.

“Retailers have been on the front lines of this pandemic as economic first responders and are going above and beyond to maintaining a safe work environment for themselves, their colleagues and their customers,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “These new credentials will give employees the training they need to continue operating and serving customers safely. An informed workforce will build customer confidence and show local and state governments that retailers are taking all steps possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” 

Made possible by American Express, the COVID-19 Retail Operations credential will train customer-facing retail workers, distribution center workers and job seekers to help safely operate during the pandemic, NRF said. Designed to assist retailers to meet state and local requirements for COVID-19 trainings, the course helps educate employees to recognize COVID-19 symptoms, take appropriate actions if exposed and understand Centers for Disease Control best health practices and tools used in retail.

“One of the major scenarios is around an employee asking a customer to wear a mask, and he reacts,” Adam Lukoskie, vice president of the NRF Foundation, told the New York Times. “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 programs are “really focused on how to engage your thinking brain over your emotional brain.” The overall aim is to teach workers how to pinpoint which crisis stage the customer may be in—and how to defuse the situation quickly. The practical course provides immediate tips on “how to verbally and nonverbally communicate empathy and support” while being masked yourself, she told the Times.

For example, “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?’” Driscoll said. “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.”

Read more advice from experts on defusing conflicts over face masks and training c-store staff to handle other workplace issues in “Angry Words” in the September issue of NACS Magazine.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.

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