Convenience-store robberies a common form of workplace violence: Study

Researchers from Rotman School of Management at UofT say standard safety protocols could put workers at greater risk. Here's what to do instead.
Michelle Warren
Editor & Associate Publisher, Convenience Store News Canada + OCTANE
Michelle Warren smiles
The robber in the mask went to the store to collect money from the cash register and threatened the seller with a gun. Vector illustration

Workplace violence is a pervasive problem with tremendous costs for individuals, organizations, and society, but c-store operators can take action to bolster safety.

A new study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) focuses on convenience-store robberies, one of the most common forms of workplace violence, and finds that robbers are significantly more likely to injure employees who are present on the sales floor rather than behind the cash register when a robbery begins.

However, standard retail-industry safety training best practices encourage employees to get out from behind the register for their safety. This actually puts people at greater risk of harm. In fact, "robbers are significantly more likely to injure or kill employees who are located there (versus behind the cash register area) when a robbery begins."

“Unlike past studies, we used video of convenience-store robberies to examine why and when injuries during robberies occur,” says co-author Katherine DeCelles, a professor of organizational behavioural and human resource management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who holdsa cross-appointment to the University’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies. “We suggest that an understanding of the interactive dynamics of workplace violence and emphasize the critical need to verify that common practices for organizations are evidence based for employee health and safety.”

Prof. DeCelles co-authored the research with Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Nir Halevy of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. The team first examined 196 surveillance videos and archival data of convenience store robberies collected over a four-year period.

Data showed "a significant correlation between employee location at the beginning of the robbery and injury, with lower risk of injury if employees were behind the register when the robbery began than if they were on the sales floor."

Follow-up studies involving 648 people, including both formerly incarcerated individuals and retail clerks, found that when presented with robbery onset scenarios, more than 81% of participants expected employees to be behind the register and anticipated significantly more violence during the robbery if the employee was instead on the sales floor.

In other words, robbers were surprised by employees being on the floor and it caused them to react.

In turn, the authors followed up by conducting a three-year longitudinal field study with revised safety protocols that provided a behavioural script for workers to follow in case of a robbery while they are on the sales floor.

Revised protocol for employees includes thinking through what to do, should a robbery occur when they are not behind the counter (which happens about half the time)," Prof. DeCelles told Convenience Store News Canada

Advice for c-store operators and employees

Robberies may begin when you are not behind the cash register.

  1. This could make the robber(s) and employee(s) more nervous because neither expects this.
  2. Most robbers want quick access to the money and need the employee to open the register.
  3. Think through the steps you will take in case a robbery happens when you are on the sales floor or away from the register:
  • Drop what you are holding (i.e., broom, mop)
  • Put your hands up to show you are not resisting
  • Offer to open the register for the robber
  • Follow all instructions
  • DO NOT resist or run out of the store

"What this does is prepare people for action even during a highly stressful event, when otherwise they might freeze," explains Prof. DeCelles.

By making sure employees had an action plan, the authors found, in studying an additional 368 robberies where new protocols were in place, a significantly lower risk of injury when employees were on the sales floor as the robbery began.

“This understanding of the dynamics of workplace violence and how to mitigate it is relevant for any retail organization and for developing effective policies which promote employee health and safety,” says Prof. DeCelles.

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