How can workers deal with customers who refuse to wear face masks?

Wearing a mask in public during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some heated interactions between essential workers and customers who refuse to wear them. A D.C.-based organization, Defend Yourself, is working to help employees navigate those interactions.

Lauren Taylor, the group’s founder, said that with the pandemic and other economic stressors, people are targeting workers who interact with the public.

“It’s really a misdirection of their stress and anger,” Taylor said.

She said that people in these positions are typically people of color, women and immigrants. “They’re targeting the people that generally have the least power in society,” Taylor said.

She said the organization’s work is about providing skills before confrontations occur. They currently work with dozens of local businesses and bars.

The strategies include de-escalation and empathy, as well as assertiveness to help address instances where customers become hostile and agitated.

“De-escalation would be more like, ‘Wow, that sounds really hard, tell me about it,’ or ‘Yeah, I really understand where you’re coming from,’ and assertiveness would be more like, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, and I still can’t let you in,”’ Taylor said.

The underlying skills to these methods include listening, agreement and apologizing, whether you mean it or not. “You may actually totally disagree, but you’re doing it as a strategy to calm the situation down,” Taylor said.

She added that offering alternatives and a face-saving exit is also important. “Things like, ‘If you give me a list, I’m happy to bring you your things out to your car,'” Taylor said.

Defend Yourself conducts evaluations after training sessions and, so far, feedback has been positive.

Above all, Taylor said the main goal is to breathe and remain calm to help avoid the fight-or-flight attitude. “If they’re way up and you’re calm about it, they have a guide of how to come down,” she said.

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