If there’s one thing retailers know, it’s that they have to expect surprises and mishaps as a matter of course in business. Many things can go wrong in a flash, and unfortunately, are not that unusual: power outages, organized shoplifting, workplace injury. The safety and security of the store’s physical infrastructure, as well as the people who work in and patronize the business, is not always considered until there is a problem. Not knowing how to proceed in an emergency is the last thing anyone wants, yet it happens when people are suddenly bewildered by unfolding events and there’s no plan in place.
Nobody likes to think about it, but food co-ops around the country have experienced tragic incidents of workplace violence, embezzlement, and property damage. No business is immune to disaster. While some things cannot be predicted, in every case where safeguards and effective preparation is operationalized, response and recovery times are shortened, loss is minimized, and people are empowered to act appropriately.
The American cooperator Ben Franklin famously said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That simple philosophy is the underpinning of the work of Paul and Michael Feiner, loss prevention consultants with CDS Consulting Co-op.
Michael Feiner notes that investing in loss prevention strategies pays off in the long run. “The co-op’s most valuable asset is its people, the members and the staff. Ensuring their protection should be an organizational priority,” Feiner said.
Feiner recommends that a good place to start to improve is to get an audit of current systems, policies and procedures as they relate to the people, products and property, and then systematically and proactively address areas of vulnerability. Feiner groups most safety and security procedures into three main areas:
- Store Operations
- Access Controls
- Cash Handling
Especially when it comes to overall store operations, Feiner said that one thing they often run up against is that asset protection is not something food co-ops are addressing organization-wide. Often, there’s no one person in charge of directing a safety or security program, so the resulting policies and procedures as they exist tend to be piecemeal, and word of mouth. Sometimes there may be a committee, or a training on lifting for new hires, or managers-on-duty are assigned to handle problems, but these efforts are not coordinated storewide through every department, and training and awareness is rarely universal.
“Even if your cooperative doesn’t have a designated manager of assets protection, someone needs to take the lead and be empowered with the authority, and ability to make changes,” Feiner said. Often an assessment points out the need to designate someone to be in charge of this important task. He said that having someone direct a committee to work on correcting problem areas, promote injury reduction, conduct safety tours, and raise awareness inter-departmentally, can be a very cost-effective use of co-op resources. “You need someone to rally the staff,” he said.
At one co-op. the safety committee chair launched a fire extinguisher scavenger hunt, awarding staff with chocolate when they correctly identified all of the co-op’s fire extinguisher locations. It was a popular and successful way to promote a culture of safety awareness within the co-op, and got people talking about it in a fun and positive way.
Feiner also said that people in charge of safety and security need to be equally take-charge and approachable personalities. “You want to set up systems where it’s easy to communicate problems and issues, one where the tools and trainings are provided to everyone, your door is always open, and an unambiguous process for handling concerns is clearly established. You want someone who can encourage people to make improvement recommendations and also have the ability to help them follow through on them,” Feiner said.
One area of concern that Feiner said he also encounters fairly often in assessments is a lax approach to access of goods and information. For example, if confidential documents are not stored securely, computer passwords are never changed, keys and codes are given out to a wide variety of people, or delivery people are not monitored or have access to what should be restricted areas of the store, it leaves the co-op vulnerable to theft and fraud. Evaluating access procedures and who is authorized to do what and where is critical to a safe and secure work environment.
In addition, cash handling comes with its own subset of concerns: does the organization have controls in place to minimize the temptation to steal? Are there doors, locks and privacy for the people in the co-op counting and handling money? Are people carrying large amounts of cash from place to place protected in the workplace?
Video surveillance is one tool for helping retailers meet some of their demands for adequate protection of staff and customers. Sometimes, though, video cameras are initially met with resistance in co-op workplaces. Feiner said that’s why open and constant communication are so important. “It’s important to keep the conversation open, that video surveillance is not a big secret. No retail store should put them up without telling people about it.” He said that people become comfortable with video when they see how much it can ultimately help them. “Most people appreciate it when they really need it, especially when reviewing cash register transactions. They find that video is a tool for everyone’s safety.”
Because safety and security should ideally interface with all departments in the store, often the operations manager and human resources departments are critical personnel in asset protection planning. Melanie Reid, human resources systems and support consultant said, “There’s a lot of overlap between HR and safety and security in the co-op.” In particular, she said that developing a high level of safety awareness within the work culture, offering training opportunities, and developing tools and policies that support safety in the workplace for staff and customers also falls under the purview of the human resources department.
Good customer service training should include an emphasis on safety and employees taking appropriate care of the food environment. Reid also noted that customers are especially savvy about cleanliness and food handling standards. “Contamination is such a big issue in a retail environment. You need to give people the tools to ensure they are using safe practices that take into account everyone who comes to the co-op as a shopper or employee,” she said.
Reid also said that the advent of social media and frequent internet usage for nearly all aspects of business activity has necessitated the need for policies that address the use of electronic communication. This includes who has access to passwords and password protected documents, appropriate email communication, and use of social media. “These are really important policies,” Reid said. Typically such policies include protocols for when people are newly hired, and closing electronic files when they are no longer working at the co-op. “It’s important to update your policies on an annual basis. Unlike your paid time off policy, they won’t remain current for five years. Social media in particular needs to be updated frequently.”
Clearly there are many things to consider to make safety important in an organization, and an assessment and review of policies is an excellent way to focus on priorities. The solutions to a lot of issues can also be found by being proactive with employee checklists, feedback forms, training and manuals that help address problems before they become a crisis. Feiner and Reid also agree that management needs to generate the impetus to develop a culture of care and well-being, “so creating a safe environment is everyone’s business,” Reid said.