Last reviewed 30 November 2017

Modern working practices mean that many employees now interact with customers and clients through the telephone rather than face to face. Mike Sopp investigates the rise of telephone rage.

Certain employees, particularly those in call and contact centres who deal with clients or customers on the telephone, experience aggression and verbal abuse on a regular basis.

Despite such aggression and abuse forming part of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) definition of work-related violence, it is often the case that “telephone rage” is not seen as a serious issue. Yet, unsurprisingly, it can have a detrimental impact on an employee’s health and wellbeing.

Causes and impacts

Although the HSE includes verbal abuse and aggression within its definition of work-related violence, research undertaken by the Scottish Government in conjunction with employers and trade unions found that both employees and managers were under-reporting incidents as such abuse was seen as being “the norm”, or part of the job.

The research by the Scottish Government also indicated that workers in call centres are considered by some members of the public to be fair game for abuse.

According to the HSE, “verbal abuse (and the fear of abuse) can have serious impacts on an employee’s mental wellbeing and can lead to distress and anxiety and longer-term stress related ill health”.

This is not only bad for the employee involved but for the employer it can lead to low staff morale, increased sickness levels and staff turnover along with reduced efficiency.

It is worth noting that guidance from the Scottish Government differentiates between anger and rage. It suggests that anger is a “natural response to threats which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked”. Rage, however, is defined in various ways and includes:

  • intense anger expressed by shouting, swearing and belittling language

  • anger which is apparently out of control, beyond reason

  • physical or verbal violence which physically or emotionally harms the recipient

  • extreme verbal aggression which makes the recipient feel personally attacked and in some cases personally abused

  • behaviour which leaves the recipient outraged

  • threats to the organisation or person.

There are very few occasions when an individual customer or client deliberately targets an employee with telephone rage, which suggests there are identifiable causes of this behaviour that can be anticipated and avoided. Typical causes that have been identified include:

  • how long the caller is kept waiting

  • being put through to an automated system/treated impersonally

  • the insincerity/rudeness of the call handler

  • the subject knowledge of the call handler and their authority to take action

  • denial of access to a staff member (eg supervisor)

  • lack of staff training to recognise the signs of potential rage.

Legal status

From a legal perspective, as the HSE identifies verbal abuse as a work-related violence issue, employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 to manage the risks.

This also requires the employer to manage the risks as required by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

It should be recognised that a caller who is abusive on a telephone call may be committing a criminal offence as the following would apply.

  • Under the Communications Act 2003, it is an offence for a person to send by means of public electronic communications network grossly offensive messages.

  • Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, a criminal offence may occur if the caller causes alarm or distress to the call handler.

  • Under the Malicious Communications Act 1998, it is an offence to send indecent, offensive or threatening electronic communications with the intent of causing distress or anxiety.

Referring back to health and safety legislation, the employer is required to assess the risks associated with telephone rage. The guidance from the Scottish Government recommends following the normal approach suggested by the HSE.

In terms of hazards, it is suggested that employees should be consulted to identify any unreported incidents and contributory factors they may be aware of. These can be “controllable” causation factors such as those detailed above. There may also be more dynamic causation factors including the profile of callers and their perceived expectations prior to the call. Clearly these factors are difficult to determine but experience of call handlers may be invaluable in this area.

In terms of those at risk, clearly all call handlers will be at risk but it is suggested that the following may be at greater risk:

  • new or young workers including voluntary staff

  • part-time seasonal workers

  • lone workers and staff working in their own home

  • those who work in other employers’ premises.

As part of the risk evaluation process, current risk control measures should also be reflected upon, including:

  • the type and level of training, information and support provided to call handlers

  • the working environment

  • the processes involved in dealing with callers

  • dealing with repeat offenders.

Risk control

The starting point of any risk control system is to develop an appropriate policy in relation to abusive callers. This should contain a statement that makes it clear that all verbal abuse towards staff is unacceptable and will not be seen as an employee’s failure or an inevitable part of the job.

The policy should also identify what support the employer would provide to any employee who believes a criminal offence has been committed against them, as detailed in the legislation above.

The HSE has published on its website a number of case studies in relation to telephone verbal abuse. They detail various approaches that have been taken by organisations to manage the risks.

The HSE suggest the first risk control area is to have “customer friendly equipment and systems” with sufficient staffing levels. This should also include systems that enable employees to gain access to customer information so as to enable them to determine individual circumstances of the caller.

One of the most important aspects is staff training. Induction training should provide “comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the service and/or product provided by the organisation”. The HSE also recommends higher level training to deal with aggressive customers and defusing difficult situations.

Another key risk control measure is the working environment and support provided to call handlers. This would include setting of realistic performance targets, being able to call upon the support of a supervisor and the circumstances when they can terminate an abusive call.

The case studies published by the HSE also indicate the need for call handlers to be able to take a break if they have dealt with an abusive caller and/or use an employee assistance programme for longer-term health and wellbeing issues.

Learning lessons is also important and employers should encourage call handlers to report any incidents by introducing adequate reporting procedures. The majority of organisations now record all calls made and it may be the case that offensive calls can be used in any future/ongoing training for other call handlers.

As with any system, the risk control measures should be kept under review. This can include the use of ongoing staff surveys, review of incidents reported, completion of customer surveys to identify issues with call handling and the review of how other organisations are managing telephone rage issues.