Leisure/service providers - Sales, service engineers, field representatives
Work-related violence case studies
British Gas is a subsidiary company of Centrica. This case study focuses on three areas of the British Gas organisation: field sales, service engineers from the Leeds and NE area, and field representatives.
Field sales: This work involves ‘cold calling’ customers. Sales staff knock on doors to advise potential customers about the benefits of changing their gas, electricity or phone supply to British Gas. They normally work alone but other team members and the manager are likely to be nearby. They usually work from noon to 8 pm.
Service engineers: There are around 900 service engineers in the North East area, all of whom are lone workers. They visit homes to repair and service gas appliances and to install electrical appliances.
Field representatives: Their work involves dealing with customers who have not paid their bills. There are around 300 field representatives in the UK. Staff make the first visits alone. They knock on the door and ask customers if they are willing to pay their bills. They then offer customers an opportunity to pay the outstanding bill by different methods. A ‘warrant visit’ is carried out as a last resort, enabling forced entry to a property using a magistrate’s warrant. Staff do not work alone on these visits.
People using drugs or alcohol: these people can be highly unpredictable.
Requesting payment: asking for payment of debts carries with it an inherent risk of violence.
Geographical areas: certain geographical areas have a higher risk of violence.
Working at night: sales staff are particularly at risk when working at night, although the level of risk varies depending on the location.
Upset customers: for example, when an engineer has not been able to carry out a repair; other customers may not appreciate having their day interrupted by a sales person.
Carrying expensive equipment: this is a real concern for engineers because it makes them vulnerable targets for assault.
Examples of incidents
Bricks thrown by youths: when an engineer returned to his car after visiting a customer, a gang of youths threw bricks at the car and smashed the windows. The engineer received cuts and bruises but managed to drive off without further injury.
Theft of laptops: opportunist thieves have stolen laptops which engineers were carrying. This developed into more organised theft in certain locations.
Physical attacks: in a couple of extreme and uncommon incidents, a debt collector was hit with a baseball bat and another was grabbed in a headlock and had petrol poured over him. Field representatives have been threatened with weapons such as iron bars.
Verbal abuse: sales staff have experienced verbal abuse from clients.
Training and information
Relevant training: the content of the training varies between departments. These are among the main training points:
- Customer service skills: being polite at all times, for example, shutting the gate when leaving a customer’s premises. Field representatives are encouraged to present a friendly and caring approach and not to act aggressively.
- Apologise if needed: if an employee arrives at a house and sees it is not a good time, they should apologise and leave immediately. An apology often defuses a difficult situation.
- Walk away: if a member of staff feels threatened, they should walk away and tell the customer they will return at a more convenient time. Sales staff are advised, ‘No sale is worth your safety’. Management support this approach.
- Be aware of the environment at all times: it is the responsibility of individual employees to assess the risks continuously while out on visits
- Trust instincts: first impressions are often accurate.
- Non-verbal behaviour: staff are encouraged to be aware of the customer’s and their own body language and approach.
- Do not take things personally: if a customer is violent or abusive, staff should not take it personally. It is not their fault.
- Access to front door: employees should ensure they have an easy and quick means of escape.
Liaison with the police: service engineers in particular have developed a good relationship with local police. The police are happy to give advice on personal safety and information on specific localities. For example, in one area, police advised engineers to visit houses before 10 am, because criminals were less likely to be operating at this time.
Reporting incidents: the company encourages the reporting of all incidents of violence, including verbal abuse.
Sharing information: all three departments have systems to record risks and to flag concerns about particular houses. Service engineers check their job sheets for information about potential problems. Field representatives may be instructed on their job sheets to phone the office for further information about a client. Sales staff do not revisit houses known to be a risk. Data protection issues are considered. Use of ‘stock answers’: the sales team in particular have some stock answers which they can use if they want to get out of a situation. For example, ‘I am sorry, but we are not allowed to enter the client’s house’. This is not likely to offend customers and allows the employee to leave quickly and without incident.
Communication between staff: the company encourages staff to talk to each other about incidents that have occurred and risks they have observed.
Work environment and equipment
Personal alarms: these are available to all staff if they want them. Service engineers are advised to attach them to the carry case of their laptop computer.
Clip-on ties and identity badges that can be easily released: these help to prevent injury if the tie or badge is grabbed, and to enable the member of staff to get away quickly.
High visibility vests: these are worn on warrant visits and help to identify that the field representatives are legally entering a house.
Use of plain vehicles: in some areas engineers use vehicles without the company logo so that local criminals are not alerted that expensive equipment may be in the vicinity.
Mobile phones: lone working staff are provided with company mobile phones or use their own.
Limited work on dark evenings: if staff do not feel confident working on dark evenings they can choose to work only in daylight hours. All staff are advised not to work in certain locations at night. Contact with management: managers maintain contact in person or by mobile phones so that lone working staff are not isolated.
Stop work if feeling threatened: staff must back off and leave in this situation. Or if the job must be done (eg debt collections), they must call for help from colleagues or police. ‘Doubling up’: staff can double up if required. Two people always attend some jobs, for example, if there is heavy equipment to move. For this reason, there is no stigma associated with using two people on a job. Three or four sales staff will work together in a block of flats for safety reasons.
Use of laptop computers: engineers carry laptops and are advised not to use or place them on front seats of vehicles. In an unsafe area, engineers should leave the laptop in a locked vehicle and should not use it while in the area. If threatened, the engineer should surrender the laptop without resistance.
Recruitment: making sure the correct people are recruited for the type of work is important.
Choice: no one is forced to work in an area in which they feel uncomfortable.
Dogs: techniques are used to find out whether there is a dog at a property; for example, before a staff member enters a house they should rattle the gate or whistle.
Sensitivity to local situation: certain staff may not be sent to particular areas. For example, if a locality has a history of racially motivated attacks on particular ethnic minorities, care is taken not to send staff of the same ethnicity to that area.
Company identity: company uniforms or vehicles are not recommended to be used in some areas.
Less successful measures
Some measures are less effective than others or have certain disadvantages:
Dog ‘dazing’ equipment: Using equipment that could ‘daze’ a dog by emitting an uncomfortable noise did not to work on all dogs. Carrying this equipment lulled staff into a false sense of security.
Handing over laptops: some staff find it difficult simply to hand over a laptop if threatened. Their natural reaction is to challenge the thief.
Attack alarms: alarms are not always to hand when needed. They can also give an inflated sense of confidence that may lead staff into risk situations they would normally avoid.
The benefits and the costs
British Gas acknowledges it is difficult to quantify the benefits of violence prevention measures. Their philosophy is that ‘You cannot put a price on safety’. These are the less quantifiable benefits the company has recorded:
Increased team spirit: this stems from more communication among staff about violent incidents and experiences.
The ‘feel good factor’: staff feel that the company is looking out for them and their interests. This is evident from staff questionnaires and other feedback such as recent health and safety road shows, and trade union meetings.
Reduced stress levels: Management perceive that stress levels have declined because of the measures.
Increase in confidence: staff have confidence in the measures.
Possible reduction in accidents, incidents and sick absence: this can be more fully assessed in the future.
Extended security: staff have asked for more involvement with and help from the police.