Guidelines to help essential and front-line workers de-escalate anger at work

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If you are a worker in an essential business such as a grocery store, pharmacy, or bank, the work you’re doing during the COVID-19 pandemic is vital to keeping people healthy and safe. Unfortunately, your job can also mean interacting with customers who are difficult, frustrated, angry, or frightened. This, in turn, can lead to difficult situations in the workplace.

This article will help you safely manage difficult, uncomfortable situations involving anger at work while you continue to provide a vital service.

What to do

If you feel safe and are comfortable doing so, you may wish to try to de-escalate a situation with an angry client or customer yourself. If you believe that it is, let a co-worker know that you are going to try to calm the angry person.

Give the person a chance to compose themselves. If your work situation gives it as an option, you should ask the person to step aside or go somewhere more private. However, be sure to tell a co-worker where you are going and choose a place with multiple exits. If stepping aside is not possible, ask the person if they would like to speak to a supervisor of customer service representative.

Encourage the person to talk. Anger is often a result of feeling mistreated or misunderstood. You might say “Help me understand what has happened that has caused the problem.” Allow the person to "talk it out." Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to calm things down.

Maintain a respectful attitude. Try to look relaxed and attentive. You want to appear open rather than confrontational.

Be a patient, sympathetic listener. Give the person your full and undivided attention and show that you are interested by focusing on what the person is saying. Maintain good eye contact, but at the same time don’t stare at the person. Don’t look at your phone or be distracted by other things

Acknowledge the person's feelings and use the person's name if you know it. You might say, “I would be frustrated if that happened to me.” This reinforces a personal connection that can have a calming effect. 

If their anger persists and it feels safe to do so, calmly refuse to deal with unacceptable behaviour. For example, if a customer is angry, you might say, "I can understand why you’re frustrated, but it is not acceptable to threaten employees."

If at any point you become uncomfortable or start to feel bullied, leave the room or try to bring a co-worker into the room.

What not to do

Don't raise your voice. Keep your tone calm and level.

Avoid arguing. You want to avoid a shouting match.

Don't be confrontational. Avoid pointing a finger, crossing your arms, or putting your hands on your hips. Also avoid any physical contact.

Refrain from making judgments. Accept criticism in a positive way. For example, if a customer makes a complaint, you don't necessarily have to agree with what the person says, but acknowledge it rather than judging or arguing with them.

When anger escalates

Sometimes anger can become a safety concern for you, your co-workers, customers, or the angry person themselves.

If the person starts screaming, shouting, or pounding fists, contact your supervisor or security. If it is possible, try to do this without the person noticing so as not to anger them further.

If the person's anger seems out of control, make every effort to leave the area. Immediately contact security and let them know there may be a threat to people’s safety. If you do not have a security representative on-site, call for the police.

Seek support

Dealing with angry customers can be unsettling and can increase your own level of stress. If you are dealing with episodes of anger in the workplace, it's important to seek support. Contact your assistance program or human resources (HR) representative to talk confidentially about your concerns.

Access your Wellbeing and Employee Assistance Program 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at or