Violence in the workplace

Recently, I have been thinking about the fact that many people in service and retail jobs regularly face harassment and violence from members of the public. I certainly did when I worked retail. In some cases, the management stepped up to the plate when incidents occurred. In many more cases, nothing was done to protect me or fellow employees. We didn’t know that the law protects employees from violence, even from the public and employers are REQUIRED to protect employees.

In my case, I was often subject to “customers” swearing at me, yelling, and, in one case,  a deranged and obviously violent young man stalking me.

In that latter case, a young man appeared in my department at Chapters on a daily basis from the first day after the store opened. The very first evening he was in my department, he was surly and rude. That evening, he spent the entire evening reading in the department and left a huge pile of magazines and books on the table where he had been sitting.

The next evening, when he came into the department, I was polite and suggested that he was free to read anywhere in the store but that if he was going to bring excessive amounts of reading material into the department, he should return it to where he got it or place it on a cart to be returned for him. He simply glared at me. When he left that evening, he left a huge stack of magazines (perhaps 50, under the cushion of the easy chair he had been sitting in. The cushion was about a foot off the seat…

The next night, I again asked him politely not to bring so much reading material into the department if he wasn’t going to return it. He just grunted but did return the magazines he had been reading.

Over the weeks, I was unfailingly polite be he grew increasingly surly, belligerent, and rude.

One day, one of the cabinets under the internet cafe that was in our department was broken into. A huge number of internet access cards were stolen.

Luckily, we were able to identify the range of card numbers which had been stolen and the numbers were blocked so that no one could use them. Some card number were missed but the bulk of them were invalidated.

As this young man sitting had never shown an interest in the internet and he was known to be homeless I was surprised to see him, the day after the theft, using the internet.

A day or so later, I noticed him at one of the internet terminals swiping card after card after card through the reader. He was getting increasingly agitated and angry as card after card proved invalid. When I walked by him, he had a large bag with stacks of internet cards in it.

I reported him to a manager and security. The security guard came up and under the pretext of monitoring him because he was swearing and being very loud. Eventually, he turned and screamed at the security guard and the guard was able to throw him out. He confiscated the cards (several thousand dollar’s worth). Unfortunately, since he was only cited for his behaviour and there was no way of proving he had actually stolen the cards (he claimed he had “found them” in the washroom) he was not “Trespassed” which would have barred him permanently and involved a police report.

Evidently, he blamed me for his being kicked out and thus began an almost daily appearance at the entrance of the department where he would glare at me, and act in a way that I felt was intimidating. I was seriously scared by him. Over the months and what became over two years, he became increasingly more dishevelled and more aggressive-looking. While he came in the store less regularly, I never knew WHEN he would appear. When he did, it would be in spates and for a number of days, he would stalk me through the store.

From the first day after his being kicked out when he reappeared, I called manager after manager and spoke to the manager in charge of personnel and was assured that “the next time he appeared, the police would be called and he would be trespassed. And yet, time after time, after time, when I called the manager on duty, often the same managers each time, they would say “I don’t know anything about that…”.

Each time I explained that he terrified me. He had told the security guard and several other employees that he had mental problems and had been arrested a number of times for “losing his temper”. He also told them he was an addict.

One day, the security guard approached me and said “Your friend was in today.”

I thought he actually meant a friend.

“No, I mean ‘XXXX’!”

He then told me that someone had reported seeing a man in the men’s washroom, cutting himself. The security guard had gone up to the washroom and watched him over the top of the stall as this guy cut himself with a large hunting knife and caught the blood in a plastic drink bottle and drank it. The guard had kicked him out. Didn’t call the police. Didn’t report it to the police. He had, however, mentioned it to a manager.

I was horrified and went to the store’s general manager and said that something had to be done. I was terrified of him and he had been in the store carrying a knife. Again, I was assured that if he appeared again, I was to call a manager, they would call the police, and he would be trespassed.

When he showed up a few months later, I called the duty manager and was told… Wait for it… “I don’t know anything about that.” and nothing was done.

This happened a couple more times but he appeared less frequently and finally stopped coming in. I was warily relieved.

One afternoon, just before I finally left Chapters, and after our department had been moved down from the mezzanine to the main floor, a customer came up and said that there was someone acting strangely and was exposing himself in front of the window that looked out onto George Street.

I called the “secret security code” which would bring security and management and rushed over to that section of the department and saw someone whose back was to me, standing in front of the window with his pants to his ankles. It appeared that he was just about to urinate on the window, in full view of customers and passers-by.

I was only a few feet from him when I yelled “Hey! Stop that!” He turned and I was face-to-face with my harasser! As he came at me, I ran and the management and security grabbed him.

Police were called and he was arrested (and FINALLY trespassed).

The fact is that in more than two years, nothing was done and it took an incident which involved a customer complain and not one from me to FINALLY have him removed permanently from the store.

It was by no means the only incident involving “customers” harassing, stalking, and threatening employees that went uninvestigated and in which employees finally quit because certain management felt that they didn’t want to risk losing a possible (and highly unlikely) sale. It took, in one case, a near mutiny by department managers to finally act on one stalker.

In another case, a man who regularly came into the store (as in every day) to study for his ESL. He seemed harmless enough but female staff felt uncomfortable with him. It wasn’t until he ran into me in the Rideau mall and started bothering me to go for a coffee with him that I began to see another side to him. I approached the employee manager told him what happened and he said that there was nothing he could do because it happened outside of the store. I felt, and I think rightly, that despite its happening outside of the store, it was enough to ask him not to come into the store any more, that other female employees felt bothered by his attentions and he wasn’t a “customer” in any sense of the word.

A few years later, I was called for jury duty and when they were picking the jury for the first case… a rape… he was the defendant. I wasn’t entirely surprised… but I was also worried I would be called and I would have to go up and state that I couldn’t serve on the jury as I was aware of the defendant and would be prejudiced against him. Thankfully, I wasn’t called for that case but was for the next.

I should say that whenever there was a clearly violent incident, the management DID act. They acted when racial slurs were used against employees (in one case by another employee and in a number of cases by “customers”). One employee was spat on and kicked by someone who had been several times told that he was not permitted to used kiosk phones (the day before the incident by me). This man was held until police arrived and charged with assault.

What I didn’t know and what was not ever communicated to me was that employers have a clear responsibility to protect their staff from harm whether from other staff members or from members of the public. Had I known what I now know, I would have had the ability to force the management to protect me from both the clearly deranged and violent young stalker and the one who tried to ask me out for coffee.

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