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COVID-19 & Face Masks: How to Manage Hostile Customers


Face masks are now mandatory in all indoor public spaces in several cities of Ontario, including Toronto and Ottawa.

This means if you run a business where you interact with the public in an enclosed space, you must have a mask policy. You must have appropriate signage at all entrances informing customers of this policy. As per the bylaw, businesses must not allow entry to customers without face coverings.

Though not all cities and regions in Ontario are fining violators. While Ottawa has fines in place, Toronto only penalizes business owners for non compliance ($1000 for each offence).

If you own a retail store, a convenience store or a personal care service, implementing this new rule may be tough. Customer satisfaction matters to your business, and turning away clients is not something you’d like to do.

But what further raises the stakes is the potential threat to safety. This bylaw has led to anti-mask protests and some incidents of violence. During this stressful time, it is difficult to say what might trigger an emotional outburst or how someone may behave once they lose control of their behaviour.

As you open for business and walk this tightrope, it may be helpful to keep a few conflict de-escalation techniques in mind. These tips may help you diffuse a tense situation or know how to respond with composure in the face of hostility.

Be calm and non-confrontational

Staying calm seems like a very obvious thing to do, but it can be hard when you are at the receiving end of an angry rant. Don’t take the remarks or hostility personally. The situation will only worsen if you start yelling as well. The best way to diffuse a tense situation is by being non-confrontational. Don’t impose your authority or get into a power struggle with the customer. Instead, make them feel like you are on their side, but you must follow the law.

For example, when a customer walks in without a face mask ignoring the signage, greet them and introduce yourself. Then politely point to the signage about your mask policy and request them to put one on. Acknowledge that while it may be an inconvenience to them, you will be fined for not following the guidelines. Or explain how if you or any of your employees falls sick, you’ll have to shut down your business. Be polite but consistently insist that they follow the policy. Thank them when they respond by either putting on a mask or leaving the premises.

Combine empathy with active listening

Active listening is a technique that involves observing the speaker’s behaviour and body language to understand them better. You then summarize and repeat what they’ve said to clarify if you’ve understood them correctly. It might be a good idea to frame your restatements as questions to be answered with a yes. When you get the customer to repeatedly say yes and agree with you, it is no longer an argument getting out of hand.

For example, “So you’re frustrated because this is the third pharmacy you’ve been to today that does not stock your medicine?” “It must be hard being out all day in this heat.” “It must be terrible to get laid off during this time.”

Listen to the customer without bias and try to understand where they are coming from. Is their outburst due to fear or anxiety? Are they having a bad day? Are they frustrated because they were standing outside in the Sun for too long only to not get what they had come to buy? Empathize with them. Do not tell the angry customer to calm down or relax. It will make them feel you are talking down to them.

Offer solutions

If it is within your control or within reason to solve the customer’s issue, you will obviously do so. If you can’t, apologize and express sympathy for their troubles. For instance, say a customer is not carrying a face mask and gets very upset on being asked to leave the store. They had come from far and had been standing outside in the queue for sometime.

It may be tempting to point out how they missed the clear signage at the entrance or even the news about the new bylaw for that matter. But the wiser thing would be to offer a solution. If you stock face coverings, you could offer them one for free or at a discount. If they are against face coverings, you could suggest alternatives such as shopping online or opting for a curbside pickup while requesting them to leave.

Do keep in mind that under the bylaw, people with disabilities or certain medical conditions are exempted from wearing face masks. They are not required to show you any proof for this exemption.

Be mindful of your non-verbal cues

No amount of sympathizing, head nodding and kind words are going to work if your non-verbal behaviour suggests the opposite. Your tone, posture and facial expressions should match your words. Give the customer your complete attention. Don’t look distracted or in a hurry. Do not cross your arms or smirk or roll your eyes if they try to provoke you into a debate on face masks and personal freedom. Maintain a relaxed posture and show respect for the other person’s opinion even if you disagree with them.

Watch out for signs of escalation

Be aware of the signs of an escalating conflict. Look out for abrupt changes in body language and tone. If the customer starts cursing or insulting you, they are spiralling out of control. They may also clench their fist or tighten their jaw. Or adjust a ring or remove their watch. If the hostile customer is growing aggressive and drawing closer, these are signs that communication has broken down.

Know when to get help

If you are by yourself and it looks like a customer is losing control of their behaviour, keep a safe distance and calmly tell them you are calling 911 to resolve the issue. If you fear for your safety, have an exit plan ready or a safe spot to escape to, such as an adjoining room with a lock. If you employ staff, create a response strategy and train them to handle such scenarios. You could also attend de-escalation training workshops online.

Need help preparing your workplace according to Public Health guidelines on COVID-19?

For advice on health and safety policies during the pandemic, call an expert at: 1 (833) 247-3652.