The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for businesses in assuring their employees are safe from crime while they do their jobs, according to a former police officer and safety expert.
Joe Crimmins, founder/CEO of Service and Protect Law LLC in Arlington Heights, spoke about maintaining safety through a wide range of scenarios during the webinar "Personal Safety: Tips for Your Employees On The Road or Outside The Office" hosted by the Daily Herald Media Group Thursday.
One of the key changes in the COVID-19 era that has opened new opportunity for criminals is wearing masks, Crimmins said. He pointed out that masks were at one time looked upon as a threat to the public, but as the pandemic has required everyone to wear masks for safety, masked people are no longer considered potentially dangerous.
"This has never happened in American society," he said. "We are actually getting used to not knowing who the person is that we're dealing with."
As a result, employees returning to work may not know if customers, vendors or even cleaning services are who they say they are, he said. The situation is compounded by fewer people returning to the workspace, so there are fewer people around to help you or to spot any dangers.
Crimmins recommended making direct eye contact with people you deal with, as well as making note of physical features, such as hair color and style, instead of clothing, as that can be more identifiable for law enforcement if the person commits a crime.
"It shows them that you're aware. It shows them that you're not an easy target," he said. "It sends a message."
He also recommended being friendly with the person, even looking like you're exchanging a smile with them.
Dealing with irate customers is another issue workers need to be aware of, Crimmins said. Two verbal strategies in diffusing irate customers are what Crimmins called "the power of yes" and distraction. Those strategies can de-escalate a situation immediately and doesn't activate the "fight or flight" reaction built into human behavior.
For example, he said something as simple as "Yes, I understand how that would make you angry" changes the conversation, even if the eventual conclusion is not in the customer's favor. Also, complementing or asking the customer about something personal -- such as a baseball cap he's wearing -- and responding to that can help divert the person's hostility.
"You've de-escalated it right away and you've started to bond with them," he said.
Crimmins stressed that these methods don't condone the customer's behavior, but are used to give employees more reaction time and a better chance to succeed in a confrontational situation.
"Threatening behavior is not appropriate and should never be tolerated," he said. "Let your employee get out of that situation and then follow up.
"If you have a customer that demonstrates this behavior, make sure they are no longer a customer," he added. "If your customer believes he can act like that in your place of business, then it shows your employees that your customer and their financial benefit to you is more important to you than them."
Crimmins noted that in all cases where you feel your personal safety is at risk -- whether it's while traveling, staying at hotels, driving your car, or working with customers -- you should always slow down your decision making process and not react instinctively. People tend to want to help others in a situation, Crimmins said, but criminals act on that instinct to take advantage of the victim.
Maintaining distance from the situation can increase safety, as well as slow reaction time, he said. If the situation becomes confrontational, he added, then distance helps you find a place to conceal yourself.