Managing telephone verbal abuse

Case studies


People who deal with customers and clients by telephone may experience aggression and verbal abuse. The Health and Safety Executive's definition of work-related violence includes verbal abuse and threats as well as physical attacks, and employers have a legal responsibility to reduce the risk of any form of violence to staff.

Verbal abuse (and the fear of abuse) can have a serious impact on an employee's mental wellbeing and can lead to distress and anxiety, and longer-term stress-related ill health. For employers, the result can be low staff morale, increased turnover of employees, and recruitment difficulties.

These case studies show how the risk of telephone verbal abuse can be managed effectively, and gives examples of how different organisations have introduced effective preventative measures and provided support after an incident. 

Key areas of good practice

Being aware of the risk and understanding the causes of aggressive behaviour

Providing training for staff

Implementing polices and procedures to inform and support staff.

Customer-friendly equipment and systems.

Legal framework

1. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSW Act)

Employers have a legal duty under the HSW Act to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This duty extends to risks arising from violence at work, or the risk of work-related stress. 

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the risks faced by employees and to take appropriate measures to prevent or reduce the risk. 

2. Communications Act 2003

Section 127 covers the improper use of public electronic communications network, including:

  1. A person is guilty of an offence if she/he:
    1. sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
    2. causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

Anyone found guilty of an offence under this section can be fined, or imprisoned for up to six months.

(Note that Section 127 replaces similar provisions in the Telecommunications Act 1984)

3. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 

Makes it a criminal offence for a person to pursue a course of conduct which may cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person.  

The Police have powers to issue restraining orders under this legislation, and offences can result in fines or up to six months imprisonment.

4. Malicious Communications Act 1988

This sets out offences relating to sending indecent, offensive or threatening letters, electronic communications or articles with the intention of causing distress or anxiety to those receiving them.


Updated 2021-06-02