Working remotely, often meeting strangers in unfamiliar properties or resolving situations in people’s homes, is part of everyday working life for many agents. Most of the time, these appointments run smoothly and without incident, but being away from the support of colleagues whilst being in an unfamiliar setting can increase the potential risk of harm from violent or aggressive situations.
Being subjected to abuse, harassment and violent situations can have a profound effect on staff in terms of work-related stress, and psychological, physical and mental health. This can also negatively impact businesses, affecting staff turnover and productivity and causing reputational damage.
The importance of personal safety
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) states 'lone working does not automatically imply a higher risk of violence, but it does make workers more vulnerable [due to] the lack of nearby support from a colleague'.
Employers have a responsibility via the Health & Safety at Work etc Act and the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations to ensure the safety of their staff when lone working. Thought must be given to what might cause harm to people and whether enough is being done to prevent that harm from occurring. Health and safety risks must be managed before any employee is able to work. This must include the provision of training, ways of keeping in contact with staff and ways to prevent work-related violence.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust defines personal safety as 'An individual’s ability to go about their daily lives free from the threat or fear of psychological, emotional or physical harm from others'.
Although the high-profile disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh happened nearly 40 years ago, risks remain higher than most for anyone working alone or attending appointments in properties. More than 150 lone workers across all sectors are attacked per day in the UK, and a survey of agents across the UK by Putney estate agent, Allan Fuller showed that just 22% of agents feel safe when on viewings, while 82% say safety isn’t taken seriously enough.
Guidance for property agents
Although the advice in this guide cannot eliminate all incidents of aggression, harassment and violence, it can help agency owners, managers and staff to understand the risks and put policies and procedures in place to mitigate those risks.
Personal safety awareness starts long before anyone steps out of the office and should run through the company’s culture.
- Have a zero-tolerance policy against aggressive, threatening or abusive behaviour, whether in person, over the phone or online. Make staff feel confident they can put their personal safety first and treat instances of any sort of threat seriously. Keep a record of any instances of abuse, harassment or threat, as it helps identify and manage risks.
- Involve staff in the creation of any policies and procedures so they’re reflective of the issues that agents may face.
- Ensure new staff are given training on the company’s policies and procedures as part of their induction and have them shadow a member of staff who you can rely on to demonstrate best practices before sending them out alone.
- Revisit training on a regular basis, so staff remain mindful and prioritise their safety at all times.
- Lone Worker Risk Assessment forms should be completed before anyone carries out external appointments or works alone. This will encourage staff to be consciously mindful of any risks to their personal safety and how these risks can be mitigated.
- Encourage staff to use mobile apps or wear personal safety devices, and ensure they know how they work and are confident using them. Trying to figure it out in an emergency is too late. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust offers a means to assess which type of device or system might be best via a series of questions to help a business investment.
- Have a code word or phrase to use to discretely alert someone in the office to a situation that requires help. Make sure all staff know how to respond to an emergency alert or when they should check on a colleague and what to do if they don’t hear back. If setting up a buddy system, make sure there are practices in place in case the buddy is unavailable.
- Implement consequences for those who don’t follow policy and practice around personal safety of themselves and others, e.g. further mandatory training.
- Self-employed agents could establish a buddy system with other self-employed agents or ensure family/friends are able to undertake the responsibility to look out for you and what processes they should follow in the event of an emergency.
- Treat every appointment as potentially risky. Details should be logged correctly on a CRM, so everyone can trace the scheduled whereabouts of other members of staff should they need to.
- Take as many relevant details as possible during the booking process: names, addresses and contact details are essential. Car registrations can also be a vital piece of information. If anyone challenges giving details advise that it is standard company policy in order to protect staff and that no appointment will be booked without this information.
- Check the information is correct. Using social media to check profiles and confirm appointments is an option, so you know who to look out for and what vehicle to expect. If anything doesn’t feel right, cancel the appointment.
- When booking a valuation, check ownership of the property and see if there’s a floor plan available online and do a Street View check of the address. Does it match the property details you’ve been given?
- If possible, keep all appointments to daylight hours. If this isn’t feasible, ensure relevant procedures are followed so other staff members know your whereabouts and adhere to the guidance on property viewings.
- Ensure other members of staff know where you are going and when you should be back and that someone is responsible for reacting if you’re not back on time. Make a habit of checking in after every appointment too (even if you’re out for a block of time). If something happens, the sooner the authorities can be alerted, the better.
- Familiarise yourself with the property as much as you can ahead of your appointment. For valuations, check the property address on Google Street View and check ownership with the details of who you’ll be meeting. Try to find a floorplan of the property that has been on the market before. If you sense any red flags, explore further or cancel the appointment.
- Don’t offer or accept a lift to viewings with the applicants.
- Arrive early and carry out a doorstep risk assessment before you enter the property. Familiarise yourself with the layout, unlock any doors and clear away anything that could potentially be used as a weapon. Trust your instincts and if anything makes you feel ill at ease, make an excuse and leave.
- Use the information you have about the viewers to risk-assess the appointment before you enter the property with them. Are they who you expected? How is their demeanour? If you don’t feel comfortable, make an excuse and cancel the appointment.
- Keep a fully charged phone and car keys on hand at all times and have location services switched on. If you have a personal safety device, make sure that you’re wearing it or that it’s easy to hand to and know how / when to use it.
- Take control of the appointment. Show viewers around from behind. Ensure you follow them up and down the stairs or let them view upstairs alone. Position yourself close to the door in any room and always know your exit from the property.
- Risks come from animals too. Request that any dogs are secure prior to an appointment and if an animal becomes aggressive and the owner can’t control them, walk away from the appointment just as you would if it was a person threatening you.
- If you feel threatened or if anything feels suspicious, leave - trust your instinct, and walk away, even if that means waiting in your locked car and calling for help from either the office or the police.
- Don’t feel forced to endure harassment, abuse or threat out of politeness. Report any instances of violence or harassment, including to the police and make a record of any incident.
Managing difficult situations with tenants can sometimes necessitate a property visit where there is already a source of tension or conflict. This could lead to an increase in risk or threat to personal safety. Having authority over someone in their home or having to enforce rules can trigger an incident more quickly. Pre-empting risk factors and being confident in managing the situation becomes more important than ever.
- Ensure that you’re familiar with the context that you’re walking into. Approach the appointment in a confident, professional manner and ensure that you’re fully informed of the events leading up to the need for the visit.
- Confirm the appointment in advance so that you know who will be there and be prepared for how they might respond based on your knowledge of the situation and of their personality. Carry out a doorstep risk assessment before entering the property and if anything feels suspicious, call for support rather than attending the appointment.
- If possible, take a colleague with you, both as support and as a potential witness.
- Maintain a good social distance from those you are meeting with and be mindful of your positioning inside the property. Keep an exit in mind and position yourself so that you can leave without obstruction should you need to.
- Keep a fully charged phone and car keys on hand at all times and have location services switched on. If you have a personal safety device, make sure that you’re wearing it or that it’s easy to hand to and know how /when to use it.
- Don’t be afraid to walk away or to call the police if you feel at risk or threatened in any way. Make thorough notes of any incident on the tenancy file.
In smaller companies where colleagues may be out on appointments, being alone in the office can make staff at risk of abuse and harassment and it can be difficult to walk away from a situation. Dissatisfied customers can target the office to vent their frustrations, whilst routine practices – working the same hours, parking in the same place, etc – can make someone a target for stalking and harassment.
- Ensure any colleague is aware of any situation that could arise where a dissatisfied customer may be looking to attend the office. Let them know what the complaint is so that they’re not caught off-guard in a way that could exacerbate the customer’s frustration.
- Instil the same confidence in office workers as those out on appointments that they have the right not to engage in anything that feels threatening or abusive.
- Ensure there’s still a means to raise an alarm discretely with the confidence that someone will respond. Make sure you have easy access to a fully charged phone and if have a personal safety device, it is worn. Call the police or local street rangers if anything happens where you need support due to aggressive behaviour.
- Check in with colleagues throughout the day if working alone for an extended period and make it a habit to confirm when you are safely on your way home.
Propertymark lone worker safety training
Learn the principles of good practice when working alone, even if is working alone at your usual place of work, with this online course, which includes an outline of health and safety management law, mobile phone safety, contingency planning and exit strategies.
Written BY NATALIE BARTON
Natalie is Digitial Communities and Marketing Officer at Propertymark and previously worked as a letting agent for seven years on the front-line, so she understands the difficult situations agents face and is best-placed to offer guidance and advice.