Managing telephone verbal abuse
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
- How long the caller is kept waiting?
- Is the call answered in a pleasant and helpful way?
- Do staff have the necessary knowledge of the products or service your organisation provides?
- Are staff fully aware of signs of the caller's emotional state? Keeping calm and assertive at any sign of aggressive behaviour can help to defuse a potentially abusive call.
- Do staff have to stick rigidly to a script?
- Do staff have sales targets to meet?
Providing training for staff
- Induction training - to provide comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the service and/or product provided by the organisation.
- Continuous development - higher level training to deal with aggressive customers and defusing difficult situations.
- Ongoing training to keep up to date with new products.
Implementing polices and procedures to inform and support staff.
- Staff are fully aware of the organisation's polices dealing with aggressive calls, including how to terminate a call and seek management support.
- Staff are aware of polices on disclosure of information, security information, health and safety procedures, provision of employee support systems eg complaints procedures, counselling and advice, eye sight testing.
- Setting performance targets that are achievable and manageable.
- Ensuring that the working environment is safe and healthy - adequate temperature, lighting, noise level, suitable work stations and equipment.
- Provision for staff to take time out breaks following difficult telephone calls.
Customer-friendly equipment and systems.
- Are there sufficient staffing levels to effectively handle customer calls?
- Is any front-end messaging system for customers clear and informative?
- Does the system support staff when they have to move from one software programme to the next?
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:
- A person is guilty of an offence if she/he:
- 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
- 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.