Right now, businesses that have a lot of foot traffic from customers are dealing with a perfect storm of problems. COVID cases are surging, there is little liability protection for businesses when it comes to employees or customers contracting the virus, and mask fatigue is everywhere. To make matters even worse, many people are confused and overwhelmed by the ever-changing guidance about COVID safety regulations. The CDC changes its understanding of the virus and prevention matters frequently, and regulations vary from state to state. This results in a lot of confusion and conflict over what actions are “right” for COVID prevention and actions are “wrong” and “unnecessary.” So, what do businesses do when customers refuse to wear their masks or socially distance? This article will cover some of the best HR strategies for preventing this issue, as well as employee policies and strategies for de-escalating and resolving situations when customers flout COVID protocol.
The Best HR Strategies for Preventing COVID Protocol Conflicts
When looking at HR updates this year, a common theme has been COVID spread prevention. Here are some tactics you can use that will be helpful to both with your team and your customers.
- Post COVID prevention policies all over the business: HR consulting teams like MP’s recommend posting social distancing, sanitization, and mask wearing policies in prominent places at a business. This will be both for the benefit of workers and customers. If anybody refuses to wear a mask or isn’t keeping six or more feet from others, HR services professionals suggest simply referring to the signage. It’s a simple way to remove any emotion from the situation. This will make it feel like the authority comes from the business itself, not the person asking the customer or employee to put on a mask, keep distance, etc.
- Signage should include these measures:
- Please stay home if you are sick
- Please wear a mask. The CDC recommends masks to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Please wear masks when not eating or drinking. Please refrain from touching masks once they’re on the face.
- Please maintain at least a 6-foot distance from others at all times.
- Please wash (with soap and water for at least 20 seconds) and sanitize hands frequently, especially after coughing, sneezing, or touching one’s face or mask.
- Please do not enter the premises if you have recently been exposed, or potentially exposed, to somebody with COVID and have not quarantined for the requisite 14 days or been tested.
- Guide with infrastructure: Place markings for social distance on the floors and build physical barriers, like plexiglass walls or tables or security cones. These items will remind customers to keep their distance from others and from areas they shouldn’t enter. If they don’t seem to comply, workers can pleasantly point out the markers, cones, etc. and ask customers to keep their distance.
- Post on the entrance: Another tactic is to post mask and social distancing policies on the entrance. There can be language refusing service if customers don’t comply. COVID safety measures can be listed alongside rules that customers are already used to following, like wearing a shirt and shoes. This will help ensure that customers who walk into the business are more likely to be aware and ready to follow COVID safety requirements. As with the above tactic, customers who are noncompliant can always be referred back to the signage on the door or outside of the building.
- Post COVID safety measures online: Businesses can share on their website and social media the COVID safety guidelines that they’re following and requiring customers to follow. As with posting notices on the entrance, this is another way to prepare customers for the requirements, making it less likely that they won’t follow them. It’s also worth noting that this tactic isn’t just beneficial for COVID prevention. It’s also a great marketing tool. Customers who are concerned about their safety will be more likely to want to frequent businesses that are demonstrative of their commitment COVID spread prevention. Businesses may gain more customers by posting about this online, not less.
- Designate a COVID point person: For every shift, designate one person to be responsible for ensuring pandemic safety measures are followed. This person can also be the one that inquiries from staff and customers and directed to. Ensure that every member of the team can easily get ahold of this point person. Ideally, they should be comfortable speaking to customers who might be frustrated by COVID protocol.
- Train all staff on COVID safety measures: If everyone completely understands what is required, there will be no misinformation or conflicting information spread. It will also help customers to act appropriately if the staff is leading by example. When staff members don’t wear masks, customers won’t feel as though they need to either.
The Best HR Practices for Handling Customers Who Ignore COVID protocol
When preventative measures don’t work and customers won’t wear a mask or socially distance, businesses can still take steps to resolve the situation.
- Have a stockpile of free masks ready: Offer them to customers if they don’t have a mask on. This may be a very easy fix to the problem. Especially if the mask is offered in a pleasant, friendly way, the customer is more likely to comply.
- Strike the right tone: Train all employees to speak to people who aren’t complying with COVID safety measures in a calm, pleasant way. (Employees should not take this moment to go on a power trip or speak condescendingly, as it will probably aggravate the customer.) Ask workers to come from the assumption that customers simply forgot or didn’t know about safety measures. They should not assume that the customer is deliberately breaking the rules and looking to cause trouble. Staff should bring empathy to the interaction, not anger, fear, or anxiety. Nobody should shame customers for refusing to wear their masks or socially distance. This will only incite anger (from them, and perhaps from other customers). Perhaps most importantly, ask workers to listen to customers if they have something to say. Even if they disagree, it will go a long way in keeping the interaction peaceful if everyone feels heard and respected.
- Do not engage in a debate: Workers should not allow customers who don’t want to follow COVID safety measures to draw them into a debate. Have staff kindly and pleasantly stick to the rules and requirements. Bringing personal beliefs, the news, politics, etc. into the discussion is likely to make it feel more contentious. This could affect other customers or simply make them uncomfortable.
- Consider role-playing these scenarios so workers are prepared. Practicing might help workers be better able to focus on what they need to say and do if they are confronted by a customer who won’t comply with COVID measures. Workers may be less surprised and feel more in control if they aren’t having these conversations for the first time.
- Offer alternatives if necessary: If the customer has a disability or trouble breathing, offer curbside pickup, delivery, or other appropriate alternatives. Consider this an opportunity to demonstrate excellent customer service, rather than a potential altercation.
- Refuse service when necessary. Don’t create bad precedents by giving in to customers who are deliberately and unjustifiably flouting the rules. If you’ve offered alternatives and they say no, it’s best to quietly ask them to leave the premises.
- Call security or the police in extreme circumstances. Give the customer a warning that you’ll need to call in law enforcement or security if they don’t leave quietly and calmly. If they persist or escalate the situation, calmly state that you’ll be calling in reinforcements. Try to create space between your staff, other customers, and the agitated customer. Stay calm when you speak to the police or security and keep the interaction free of emotion.
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