The client is not always right – managing client aggression in the workplace

08 March 2016

The old adage of the client is always right will not apply when clients engage in aggression in the workplace.

Aggression towards employees can occur in any workplace and in any line of work. Businesses increasingly have to manage client aggression incidents – raising both challenging personal and legal issues. Under work health and safety laws businesses should have in place plans to manage client aggression incidents where there is a risk of incidents arising and regularly review the effectiveness of the plan. Failure to act to proactively manage client aggression could leave businesses in breach of Work Health and Safety laws and worse still, could result in serious injury or death.

Client aggression includes any unacceptable hostile behaviour that creates an intimidating, frightening or offensive situation, and/or adversely affects workplace performance. It may involve one off acts of physical violence that result in physical injury or threats or verbal abuse.

Client aggression incidents are a big risk in the service sector

Businesses operating in service sectors are most exposed to potential client aggression issues. Such industries include:  welfare, education, justice, financial and professional services, health services, hotels, catering and tourism, retail, media and entertainment industries, postal and telecommunications services, public service, local authorities, transport and utilities.

WHS duties to manage client aggression

Under Work Health and Safety laws, businesses and employers have the primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable the health and safety of all persons on a worksite. This duty of care includes protecting people from workplace violence. The legislative duty requires the prevention of “foreseeable risk”. The duty extends not only to employees, but to all persons at the workplace including clients, customers and visitors.

Businesses and employers must go through a process of risk identification and consider if client aggression incidents are a foreseeable risk. Where a business is aware there is a risk of client aggression, it should be treated like any other workplace hazard and appropriately managed. The following case study is based on a real incident:

Richard managed a local office facilitating access to services, payments and complaints. One particular service user visited the office frequently, to use services. On each occasion he would take the opportunity to verbally abuse employees working in the office and raise his walking stick as if he was going to strike employees. As some of the employees lived locally, he would sometimes make comments about their family and non-work activities.

On one of his visits, the employees were already feeling strained due to a number of other aggressive incidents that week. The service user launched into his usual tirade and one of Richard’s employees snapped and shouted back, burst into tears and walked out and was on sick leave for a number of weeks.

The steps to take to manage client aggression

What should this business (and all other businesses) have done to manage this risk? It should have:

  • Consulted with employees and health and safety representatives – to identify the hazard and triggers for aggression, review working arrangements, absenteeism and sick records, consider actual incidents and possibly conduct a survey;
  • Assessed the risk level by considering the likelihood of incidents occurring and the likely consequence of any such incident in order to prioritise the hazard or hazards to be managed;
  • Developed a plan to prevent and eliminate violence and aggression in the workplace using controls.  It is important to consider not only putting in place protections, but also workplace design with priority being given to design out risk where possible by removing triggers to violence and protecting employees from the risk and ensuring there are available tools to assist manage aggression incidents. It is important to note, where there is no program in place and there is a foreseeable risk of incidents, the business will be committing an offence under WHS legislation even if no incident actually occurs by exposing employees to a hazard;
  • Developed a close working relationship with other applicable agencies;
  • Provided procedures for responding to incidents;
  • Provided information and training to managers and employees – it is important that employees not only understand the plan but are aware that they have a duty to comply with organisational policy and procedures, to report incidents and to support arrangements to control risks and managers must understand their role in managing client aggression; and
  • Monitored the effectiveness of the plan by reviewing incidents that have been managed and action taken and make any necessary updates to the plan.

In some industries it may be possible to include excluding the aggressive client from further use of the service after due warning as part of the management plan, but in others this may not be possible due to legal obligations to provide access to the service. In those circumstances, verbal and written warnings, behavioural contracts, mediations and personal protection or violence restraining orders (depending on the jurisdiction) amongst other measures might be able to be considered.

Other legal risks from client aggression incidents

In addition to WHS legislation, other laws may also apply to client aggression incidents including:

  • Employment laws in the event that the person the subject of a client related incident is unable to return to their pre-incident duties;
  • Workers’ compensation and common law claims for injuries or mental distress;
  • Public liability claims where contractors or members of the public are injured; and
  • Criminal laws and criminal codes in the event of an assault or incident involving death or injury.
 Lessons for businesses
  • Workplace violence is a continuing and serious issue. Businesses must have in place strategies to manage workplace violence and to control the risks.
  • Businesses must take active steps to manage the risk of client aggression incidents and should have in place a simple and effective written policy.
  • Where businesses operate in an industry that is at particular risk of client aggression related incidents it would be prudent to have external experts review:
    • your controls and procedures;
    • your handling of incidents;
    • the drafting of any incident reports (to ensure they do not add to the legal risk created by the incident); and
    • the effectiveness of your aggression management plan based on actual incidents – if you experience a lot of client aggression incidents you may also wish to have some members of your staff interviewed about your plan and its operation as this may identify gaps in how the system is designed to work on paper and is actually working in practice and identify issues that would otherwise not be raised.

Written by Sarah Harrison, Partner, Perth.

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