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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Changes in employee training can reduce injury rates during store robberies

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Katherine DeCelles

Over the course of three years, professor Katherine DeCelles reviewed hundreds of videos of convenience store robberies at one national chain to learn how it can keep staff safer during incidences of theft. Based on the results of her study, the convenience store chain changed the way it trains employees to respond during robberies, resulting in lower rates of injury. Her research paper, “Unexpected employee location is associated with injury during robberies,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2022. We spoke to DeCelles to learn more about her findings. 

How did you first get interested in the topic of violence in convenience stores?

I reached out to a contact at a convenience store chain to study ethical cultures and climates in organizations. But when he responded, he said: “I don’t want to study that. I want to study robbery.” I thought that sounded way cooler than what I was originally interested in, and more important.

Were you studying how to reduce robberies?

We know you can’t reduce robbery to nothing. And it can get pretty violent at times, although injury is still pretty rare. So, assuming that robberies might happen, we wanted to know, how do we keep staff safest? My collaborator put several hundreds of videos of robberies on an external drive for me and I just started watching them. I also received training manuals from WorkSafeBC, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and U.S. government websites. He wanted to know whether their safety suggestions were working.

Are there certain groups of people that are more affected by convenience store robberies?

Definitely immigrants and minorities because convenience stores are often a small family business. It’s also a very low-margin business. This is a vulnerable population financially, and also, potentially, through race. That said, most people who work in convenience stores at night are men. We paid attention to race and ethnicity through our perception (our best guess of the person's race through what we could see in the video footage), and we didn’t see any differences in terms of violence associated with minorities versus whites. But in this situation, because [minorities] are more likely to be employed in this job, they are more likely to be a victim. I’d estimate that the majority of workers from our study were non-white – around 70 per cent.

How were staff at this chain trained to handle robberies at the time you started your study?

It was standard in the industry at the time that people were trained to get out from behind the counter, especially at night. It’s unclear to me exactly how this practice got so institutionalized into the standard training, but it’s so standardized that it appears in Canadian and U.S. government-based suggestions for safety and retail. I used to work in retail myself, in a shoe store, and we had quite a bit of theft. We were told to get out from behind the counter to prevent shoplifting by approaching the customer and asking if they needed help, so that they know you’re paying attention and you’re alert. But that’s a very, very different situation than robbery. If you look at it cynically, businesses need their employees to get out from behind the counter at night. You don’t want an employee who’s back there on their phone. You want somebody who’s cleaning and restocking and pricing. So there’s a little bit of potential organizational interest in that advice. But staff fared worse when they were out from behind the counter when the robbery started.

Why is it safer to be behind the counter during a robbery?

We found that the majority of people assume that clerk would be behind the register. If you’ve ever experienced going to a store and the clerk is not there, it’s kind of agitating and you’re kept waiting. Imagine that, times 20 – you’ve amped yourself up to potentially commit a crime and no one’s there. Now you’ve got adrenaline and frustration and a weapon involved, and an extra surprise task, which is to go and find a clerk. As a result of our initial study, our collaborator changed the way they train staff. They removed the suggestion that people should get out from behind the counter to keep safe so to not mislead people.

Are there other ways we can keep convenience store clerks safer during robberies?

Previously, staff had been given no instruction about what happens when you’re out from behind the counter and a robber comes in. Staff are so surprised that they don’t know what to do. When you’re frozen in place, that looks a lot like resistance to the other party. We needed to tell employees the steps that they should take so there would be automaticity under high stress. We gave them videos showing good examples of people being responsive in this situation. If you’re holding something, put it down and put your hands up to signal that you’re compliant and you’re acknowledging the situation in their power. Then, tell them that you’re going to the register to open it for them. Don’t just go because they might think you’re running away. And it looks like this training worked. The rate of injury when clerks were out from behind the counter was significantly lower following the training. It was powerful, and honestly, I was very happy to see that we potentially helped people. 

Have outcomes of convenience store robberies gotten worse since the pandemic?

It’s too small of a sample size, but at this organization, when CERB payments came out, robbery decreased. Robbers are not robbing for the fun of it. They actually need money. However, at the same time, convenience stores are the organizations that stayed open. If people are looking for a place to rob, they have to go into a place that’s open.

How do robberies impact the ability to hire?

I haven't spoken to them about their recruitment practices, but in a tough job market, I think it’s going to be hard to fill these jobs. They’re low wage, they’re often part-time with no benefits. People don’t want to work overnight. Turnover is pretty high.

And how might these robberies impact organizations in general?

There’s reputational risk. Some robberies get a lot of media attention and make people afraid to go to that particular store. If you have the death of an employee, I don’t know the financial costs for the organization, but certainly, there’s an emotional and moral cost to the family, to the employees and to the organization itself. For any organization, if they have a death of an employee at work, it’s a disaster, not just for reputational concerns but motivational concerns and for recruitment.

Katherine (Katy) DeCelles is a professor of organizational behavior and academic director of PhD program at Rotman, and cross-appointed to the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto.