Empowering Workers to Enforce Mask Mandates With a 'Smile'

An expert shares three tips to avoid confrontations
Photograph: Shutterstock

Masks have become a hot button issue for retailers. Whether a state mandates them to be worn or it is company policy, the result is the same, employees are being put on the front lines of enforcement, often with little to no training on how to do it. A stock person may now be asked to act as a kind of “bouncer.” The situation is ripe for confrontation with videos of customers—and employees—behaving badly going viral on a weekly basis. One encounter was deadly, something that all retailers want to avoid.

Several retailers have developed suggestions for staff on how to handle the situation, but when one of the first suggestions is to smile at customers—a gesture that is rendered moot when your mouth is covered by a mask—some additional advice might be welcome.

Russ Turner, director of People Incorporated’s Training Institute, offers suggestions on how retailers can help prepare and train employees to start the encounters in the right manner and how to de-escalate situations should they become heated.

The most important thing is that employees check in with themselves first, because they have to remain very neutral and non-emotional, Turner said. “They’re really venturing into this world of mental health for which they’re not really trained and not prepared,” he added. “Because if someone with an anxiety disorder walks into your store, guess what? You’re a mental health worker now. So that’s fun.”

Paying attention to body language is also critical. Confrontational or defensive body language on the employee's part is a recipe for disaster. They need to look assertive, but keep their posture very neutral. Being aware of what their hands are doing also is key, Turner said, as people tend to let their hands come up high when agitated or exasperated. Supervisors should also be careful about who they select to stand at the door making the requests. They should have laid back and friendly personalities but able to handle pressure. If someone cries when yelled at, this is not the person to handle the job properly.

Employees also should role play how these conversations may work out, either with themselves or other staff members. Turner suggested role playing these scenarios in staff meetings so everyone gets used to handling many possible situations. Write down the common responses customers have to the request and role play how to react to those comments. He equates the role playing to asking someone on a date. “You prepare for things like that,” he said. “Like, ‘What am I going to say?’ The training is to get that strategy down so that you have something in your head. You don’t just wing it.”

mask up infographic
Infographic courtesy of People Incorporated’s Training Institute

Turner has developed a three-step strategy that employees can use to help elicit positive reactions from customers when they are asked to put on a mask.

  1. Find a connection and develop a rapport. Doing this helps take the intensity out of the situation. “It’s relational,” he said. “It might be something as simple as saying, ‘Thanks for coming in’ or ‘It’s good to see you.’ ”
  2. Make the request an ask, not a tell. Would you be willing or could you do this, he suggested, and feel free to add some context like it’s the state mandate or the bosses are making us do it. “If it’s a worker, I’m OK with them saying things like, ‘Yeah, they're making us do the mask thing.’ Right? So it’s not personal,” Turner said. It also is helpful if the employee can put the request onto someone else. “Unless you’re literally the one that wrote that rule, it’s unreasonable for the person to have a go at you about it. And you want to try to convey that quickly and you do it by putting it on other people or other entities,” he said. “The word ‘they’ can be useful. ‘They are making everybody do the mask thing.’ Then add in the appeal. ‘Can you help me out, throw a mask on? Otherwise I’m going to get in trouble.’”

    Turner also suggested using very informal language throughout the whole interaction. “It helps connect people,” he said. “Like ‘throw a mask on,’ rather than ‘You have to comply.’ ” If employees still get pushback, then move into step three.
  3. Find things to agree on to de-escalate the situation. Be prepared for the customer to curse, but if the employee can agree with the angry customer, even say something along the lines of “I’m on your side, but they’re making us do it,” can help diffuse some anger. Also, saying thank you for their compliance before they’ve agreed to comply can help. Another tip is for the employee to say something along the lines of “I really wish I didn’t have to have this conversation,” because it’s true, and it makes it not personal to the customer.

    Paraphrasing what the customer says also helps make them feel heard, which is really all they want, Turner said.
    “This is going to sound a bit theoretical and 'psychobabblish,' but the way it works is the reflecting creates empathy and empathy reduces tension,” he said. “So, if the customer says. ‘There’s no way I’m wearing an effing mask,’ then you reflect that, you paraphrase it back. ‘Oh, so for you, the mask isn’t something you want to do.’ That’s a connector because although it doesn’t solve anything, they know that you heard that. And it’s not detrimental either way. It’s like, ‘Oh, I think this is what you’re trying to say to me.’ And then they have to go again and you paraphrase again. You can do that a few times.”

    However, the key is to not repeat what the customer says word for word back to them. If the employee just repeats what the customer says, the customer won’t feel heard and when people don’t feel heard, they begin to speak louder in order to make themselves heard. Paraphrasing is critical. “That’s the skill, the really skillful bit, to be honest, that you really train on and coach,” Turner added. “It’s a really strange way of communication for most people. They don’t normally do that.” The natural response when someone says they won’t wear a mask is to say back that they have to, but that comes across as an attack. If the employee takes what the customer says and just phrases it differently, then the customer is less likely to feel attacked and more likely to feel like they are being heard.

    Another de-escalation technique is for the employee to offer choices to the customers, which is better than mandates. The customer won’t like any of the options, but it’s helpful for the employee to have three options to offer. The options could be: do you want to put your own mask on, do you want me to give you a mask or do you want to go back out and arrange curbside pickup? When the customer hears them, even if they don’t like them, it’s calming because the customer is forced to engage with what the employee is offering them.

    Also, if the customer wants to have the last word, but they are going to comply with the putting the mask on, let them have it. The outcome is what is wanted and instruct the employee to let those comments roll off their backs.

However, employees can use all these techniques and still run into a customer who absolutely refuses to comply. Rather than force the issue or not allow them access to the store, Turner suggested just letting the customer in. “It can’t be worth physical violence to make people comply,” Turner said. “It’s kind of like the 80/20 rule. If 80% of the people put a mask on, that is not bad.” Everyone would rather it be 100%, but “people get very stressed and emotional about the issue right now, but it’s not a character flaw to not want to wear a mask,” he says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with education and it shouldn’t have anything to do with politics. We’ve got to frame it as a stress problem, like the person is super anxious. If you frame it like that, it’ll be helpful.”

Also, encourage other staff members to pay attention to what is happening at the door. They should also be trained in these techniques so if they see the employee begin to lose their cool, they can step in to handle the situation without it escalating into a viral video of either the customer or the employee behaving badly.

If retailers want to learn more about Turner’s tips for handling this new, but delicate, mask-wearing situation, he offers a one-hour course called Seeking Voluntary Compliance Amid COVID-19.



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