Current Issue

Last May, a woman spat at a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, then called her husband and son, who came to the store and allegedly killed the guard. In August, a patron assaulted an employee of the Sesame Place amusement park near Philadelphia, breaking the 17-year-old’s jaw. In December, Houston police arrested a man for smashing a glass over the head of a bar worker. And in January, in Dale City, California, a customer coughed on a Safeway employee and threatened her and other staff with a knife when confronted. These incidents are among dozens that have occurred at stores and restaurants across the country with one thing in common: They were all precipitated by workers asking customers to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Since COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many stores and restaurants have instituted mask requirements for customers. As of this writing, 36 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have all mandated that people wear masks in indoor public spaces, and the Biden administration has issued an executive order “requiring masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings, on all federal lands, and by federal employees and contractors.”

Former President Donald Trump and other public figures have expressed skepticism about mask effectiveness and the dangers of the coronavirus, making wearing masks a political issue for some. One in five respondents to a Pew Research Center poll “specifically called masks unnecessary, ineffective, oppressive or unfair; stated that they refuse to wear masks; expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 pandemic in general; or expressed a belief that the pandemic is being used to manipulate Americans for political gain.” These respondents comprised 27% of Republicans versus just 3% of Democrats.

Even with the rising number of COVID deaths, polling shows that willingness to wear masks may be inconsistent. According to a January survey of 6,000 American adults by the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, while 83% believe that wearing a mask is effective to protect them from COVID-19, only 51% said that they wore a mask while in close contact with people outside of their household.

As public-facing businesses attempt to protect their workers and customers from illness—and themselves from potential liability—employees are struggling with the challenge of managing angry customers who refuse to wear a mask.

Preventing Conflict

Businesses have the legal right to refuse service to people who are not wearing masks. To proactively prevent incidents, the first step is making the company’s policies as clear as possible to potential customers. Whether through outside signage, announcements, press releases, social media or other communication streams, setting expectations before a customer enters an establishment can deter someone who is committed to not wearing a mask from patronizing the business and potentially starting an altercation.

“It’s important to be having that message out there everywhere so that, if someone is coming to your store, they’ve seen signs and they know they’ll have to wear a mask,” said Adam Lukoskie, vice president of the National Retail Federation Foundation. “So when an associate asks them to put a mask on, it is not the first time that person’s thinking that they’ll have to wear a mask in the store, and any of those hardliners who are really against masks may have left the line and gone home if they thought they would be required to wear a mask.”

Effective Training and Policies

Forcing employees to improvise a response to customers who refuse to wear masks can leave them feeling overwhelmed and unprepared, possibly escalating tensions and increasing the chance that a situation will spiral into conflict and even violence. Experts and service industry representatives emphasize the importance of training employees to prevent or manage these incidents. To this end, both the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association offer industry-specific online training programs focused on conflict de-escalation.

To empower employees and avoid conflict, it is essential to ensure workers—especially frontline, public-facing staff—have clear guidance and training about the establishment’s policies, the reasons for those policies, and how the business expects employees to enact them. This means that employers must have clear policies and procedures in place and impart them to staff systematically, either by developing a process in-house (ideally with the help of legal counsel) or through existing training.

Policies on how to handle customers who refuse to wear masks vary among establishments. For example, although businesses like Walmart, CVS and Walgreens all have policies requiring that customers wear masks inside, to decrease the chances of a confrontation, these companies have also instructed their employees to allow customers who refuse to wear masks to continue shopping and not to block them from entering the store or confront them physically. Walmart employees are told to alert a manager, “who will talk to the customer and try to find a solution.” CVS instructs employees to help the customer make their purchase as quickly as possible, and recommend the customer try the store’s drive-through or contactless shopping options in the future.

Handling an Altercation

Even before interacting with a customer, employees should watch for non-verbal cues of agitation, such as “fidgeting, crossing arms, or pacing,” according to the National Retail Federation’s employee training program, developed in collaboration with the Crisis Prevention Institute. Approaching the customer in a supportive, open way and being willing to listen to their concerns—before repeating the establishment’s mask requirement or other messages they might not want to hear—may help defuse tension. The National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe training explains, “If we model calm behavior, those around us are likely to remain calm as well.” If this approach does not placate the customer, the employee should clearly express the establishment’s mask policy and offer them a mask, if available.

If the customer still does not comply, staff can seek a manager’s help. “Do not ask or expect a non-management employee to handle removal of a non-compliant visitor, guest or customer,” employment law firm Fisher Phillips noted in a recent client advisory. The manager should reiterate the establishment’s mask policy and offer the customer an opportunity to comply or make alternate arrangements, such as taking advantage of contactless shopping options, rescheduling a restaurant reservation or getting their meal as takeout. In turn, if the situation turns physical, the manager should be prepared to involve the business’s security staff or local law enforcement, much in the same way they would deal with a case of trespassing.

Whether an employee or manager is handling the situation, the National Retail Federation recommends moving the interaction to a space with fewer other customers and involving another staff member.  “Sometimes the second face can help automatically de-escalate a conflict,” Lukoskie said. The ServSafe training also stresses that employees should try not to take the confrontation personally, no matter how rude and personal a customer’s attacks may be.

Post-Incident Procedures

“Regardless of how the situation concludes, your manager should immediately document the incident in objective, non-emotional terms,” providing this documentation to human resources, the legal department or other relevant stakeholders, Fisher Phillips recommended. It is also important to keep this report on file in case the establishment is later required to prove what happened (for law enforcement or if a lawsuit is filed, for example).

These confrontations can leave employees mentally and physically shaken, and may affect morale and job performance, even for those not directly involved. Lukoskie recommended a tactic called “therapeutic rapport,” where an employee is given “an opportunity to step away, take a couple deep breaths, and talk to another associate or manager, depending on who that person is, if they want to talk it through or reflect.”

While debriefing and correcting missteps is important, managers should be conscious not to move too quickly. “It isn’t always best to give that staff member immediate feedback,” Lukoskie said. “Perhaps they didn’t handle the situation as best as they could have. Immediately after that, you may not want to tell them the three things they did wrong in that situation because they themselves still need to calm down.”

Managers should also be aware of their employees’ mental state and the challenges they are facing both in and outside of the workplace. As Lukoskie noted, “It’s important for employers to recognize that their staff are also dealing with all the stressors of COVID,” which can exacerbate conflicts with customers and mean that an incident may affect their mental health as well. Ensuring that employees know about and can access any available mental health resources can help them work through the trauma and stress of these incidents and reinforce that management cares about their well-being.

Even as more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations, experts still recommend that people wear masks when in indoor public places and when they cannot keep a safe distance from others. As a result, businesses will likely keep such policies in place and continue to face customers who refuse to comply. By implementing clear policies and training employees to handle conflicts safely, businesses can help prevent escalation and violence.

Adam Jacobson is associate editor of Risk Management.