Do Your Front-Line Employees Need Makeshift Panic Buttons?

Faced with the continuing pandemic, supply chain shortages, and resulting irate customers, front-line employees may require crisis training and a way to summon support quickly when needed.

As I feverishly labor to complete a long list of assignments before leaving on vacation, I remember that there are those who have it much harder. I labor within the security of my apartment with nothing but my many deadlines to fear. Front-line employees sometimes have angry and unpleasant customers to fear, along with an often physically punishing work pace.

According to Axonify’s Global State of Frontline Work Experience Study, published in October, front-line employees are more likely to quit over burnout than poor compensation. Almost half of front-line employees reported they’re planning to leave their jobs, with Gen Zers most eager to leave (63 percent). Of those looking to quit their jobs, the #1 reason was burnout—compensation ranked #4.

In light of those findings, if your company has front-line employees, how are they doing? It’s always seemed to me less than rewarding to be a front-line employee, such as a cashier or sales associate, but now it seems frightening. With many stores still requiring masks, front-line workers are the enforcers of the requirement. News reports detail violent episodes in which front-line employees relay the masking policy to customers and get beaten up in response—it’s no surprise that some companies apparently have instructed their employees to just let it go. The masking policy is posted prominently at the store’s front door, and if a customer is not wearing one, it is less common now to hear a store employee point out the policy and ask the customer to mask up.

In addition to confronting non-compliant customers, I bet many front-line employees found themselves serving as referees when one customer called out another customer for not wearing a mask or for standing too close to them. What if someone coughed or sneezed too close to another person? I walked past two men on the sidewalk here in New York City a couple weeks ago who I thought were about to come to blows after one sneezed as the other was crossing his path.

Equal to the masking resistance is the stress of front-line employees at restaurants in cities with vaccination requirements to dine indoors. I wonder what happens when the hostess at a restaurant tells tourists from a part of the country with looser COVID-19 safety measures they cannot enter without proof of vaccination. What happens if they explode in anger, or refuse to turn around, instead barreling into the restaurant?

All of these potential situations mean that front-line employees—whether in stores, restaurants, or on airlines—need crisis training. A flight attendant always required crisis training due to the possibility of in-air emergencies. Now all employees who deal directly with the public need it.

If your company has front-line employees, have you provided crisis training to them? If so, what does that training include? If I were a front-line employee, I would want training that would tell me what to do when a customer refuses to comply with a pandemic safety requirement or who flips out because we don’t have the merchandise they want due to supply chain issues. Could a memorized script help employees avoid engaging their emotions when confronted by an irate customer? It may seem cold and impersonal to recommend scripts that can memorized, or saved as a job aid to a smartphone, but when faced with a person shouting at you, having a script ready to go, rather than having to think in the moment about what to say, can be a lifesaver. At the very least, it could prove a sanity-saver that prevents a confrontation that leaves an employee so traumatized they quit their job.

I also would feel better as front-line employee if there were a panic button I could push to instantly bring security guards or a store manager to my side—or even the police. I have heard of panic buttons in banks that tellers can push in case of a robbery, but I have never heard of such a precaution in stores or restaurants. Since installing bank-like panic buttons in stores and restaurants would be impractical due to the cost, maybe there could be a way for an employee to push a button on their phone to instantly summon support. One easy idea is to have managers and employees share phone numbers, and for the managers to have a particular ringtone or song programmed on their phone to play when each employee calls. That way, the employee could tell their phone, “Call Sally,” and Sally the manager would get a call using a ringtone that would tell her one of her employees was in danger and needed help. That’s just one idea for creating makeshift panic buttons for front-line employees. I’m not a technologically advanced person, so perhaps you or someone in your organization could brainstorm some ingenious ways of creating panic buttons.

If I were a front-line employee, I also would want to know how to cope with my experiences with the public at the end of the day when it’s time for me to go home and leave my work behind until my next shift. In addition to training employees on how to handle customer interactions, they may need to be trained on how to cope with the aftermath of those interactions. For many, it’s harder to shrug off work these days.

If your company has front-line employees, how are you helping them through the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and supply chain shortages?