Nick Martindale looks at what the modern security officer needs to thrive.
06 January 2020 | Nick Martindale
In many ways, manned security is a reflection of the society it serves and the circumstances it faces at any given time. Recently, there have been a number of trends that have altered the landscape, including the growing threat of terrorist attacks and an increase in business crime - retailers alone lost £1.9 billion in 2019, up by 12 per cent, according to the British Retail Consortium's annual Retail Crime Survey. Social media has also changed the rules of the game, with those working in the hospitality sector all too aware of the potential for situations to escalate should incendiary content go viral.
Security officers, in response, have had to adapt to new demands of the role, with a growing emphasis on preventing potentially volatile situations from developing in the first place.
"On one hand officers need to have an authoritative presence but, on the other, the role demands a calm and understanding demeanour," says Steven Moore, managing director, security at Atalian Servest. "Proactivity is key, as is a heightened sense of awareness. The ability to anticipate eventualities while knowing when it is appropriate to intervene is also important in order to mitigate risk and ward off potential conflict."
The ideal security officer is calm, professional and not intimidating, but also objective when assessing a situation and strong-minded to make a quick decision, explains Mark Rogers, sales and marketing director at Corps Security.
"However, in today's climate, with constantly changing threats, intelligence, adaptability and good communication skills are also very important. Talking to people and managing situations in a more passive way is very important but security officers still have to be ready to act as soon as necessary," Rogers adds.
Basic conflict management training is now required for door supervisors as part of the Security Industry Authority (SIA) licence-linked qualification. First-aid training will be an additional requirement from April 2020. Positively, many operators already exceed these requirements.
"Something underappreciated about the industry is that anyone doing the top jobs in manned security has to understand people," says Darren Read, managing director at Amulet. "To be able to make the right choice in any situation, staff need to understand people well enough to know who is and is not a threat, and how to react."
Security officers have to be adept at understanding people's body language and rely on verbal skills to diffuse potentially volatile situations, says Terry Hanley, director of security at Interserve Support Services and a former security officer himself. This requires a blend of awareness for one's own safety and the safety of people you're trying to manage, he says. "It's about how you position yourself, how you stand, approach and communicate, and then being able to undertake a dynamic risk assessment at the time you're having to manage the incident." This is vital in traditional roles such as on nightclub doors, he adds, but also in hospitals, mental health units or even colleges.
Security personnel at Mitie are encouraged to make eye contact with customers. "It means people feel welcomed, acknowledged and safe," Jason Towse, managing director, explains. "Equally, if you're a bad lad walking into a supermarket or shopping centre and you get that eye contact you know you've been clocked before you've done anything wrong. That initial introduction is something we teach people very early on in their induction."
Alongside the need to prevent potential conflict situations from escalating, in some environments, security officers have moved into roles that directly affect the experience of visitors - whether in a corporate or consumer setting.
"When members of the public see someone with a high-vis jacket, they automatically see someone in authority or who can help them with a situation," says Abbey Petkar, managing director of Magenta Security Services. "It's the uniform and the fact they're visible, so they are a point of contact and, over time, that's become more apparent. That's why communication skills have become more important."
The need for quality communication skills is important across different environments but some locations demand this more than others. Read says: "In an office in the City, the role of our personnel may be to ensure access is secure yet seamless. In contrast, we have personnel in very high-end boutiques in the West End of London. Here, there may be very few customers but the one or two that do come in may provide the boutique's earnings for a week. Our staff have to greet customers and provide an unmatched service. Any mistakes and that sale may be lost."
The line between security and front-of-house roles is fading, and this can have an impact on the attire clients want officers to wear. "As they are often the first point of contact, they also have to make a good impression so security staff are expected to be very well presented," Rogers explains.
"That said, a fully-suited, premium dress code is not practical for many situations in which security officers work. For example, at a hospital or late night at an events venue, there will likely be people being sick, acting inappropriately or making bad decisions. An expensive suit just isn't a practical uniform in that situation," he adds.
In some cases, customer service skills can be the highest priority for clients, with security being a secondary element of the role. "Not all security is security-led," says Towse. "We lead some of our contracts through front-of-house staff, who we then train in security." In some locations, the security personnel are the only faces they customers see, "so they're front and centre in any environment regardless of the location".
More duties, more money
Many clients are asking security officers to undertake roles that traditionally would have been carried out by other functions. "One of the challenges is that because we are fundamentally a labour-based cost to our clients, with the increase in the minimum wage, they are expecting a broader range of duties out of the same security officer," says Brendan Musgrove, managing director at Cordant Security.
"In many cases now, we're expecting them to tiptoe into the world of facilities management and some of the lower-level tasks there or move into merchandising in retail. It's often security plus something now, so you're looking for that adaptability to be able to take on a wider range of tasks than just doing the more traditional security work."
The good news for security personnel is that these added duties can lead to higher wages, without incurring additional costs for clients. "Overall, customers are not looking for an increase in cost but they are willing to accept higher individual guarding costs in order to get a better-quality and better-trained guard who can take on what would in the olden days have been the job of more people," Musgrove explains.
The team at Mitie has also noted this shift in client expectations. "When we're creating value for our customers, that's one area we'll look at," says Towse. "They pay for the asset, being the person, so what more can we get out of that investment during their shift other than looking at a camera or a door? The focus is security but sometimes they will pick up switchboard duties or workplace coordination roles, maybe interacting with other service roles and sometimes taking the lead."
The extent to which this requirement of extended duties can be met depends on the environment. "In a healthcare setting it's very difficult to have someone go out and fix a light bulb, whereas in maybe a shopping centre or a manufacturing environment it may be something that you'd look at picking up, depending on your risk and the skill set required," Hanley explains.
"It wouldn't be unusual in a mall to see a security person mop up a spill, whereas in an A&E department they'd probably be focused on different things and may have more resources to handle a spill." In a total facilities management contract, it's more likely that those tasked with security roles would be focused just on that area, Hanley adds.
Reducing the number of staff involved in security - particularly for night shifts - has become a requirement from clients. But this means that there's more need for remote support. "Less coverage on-site means a greater demand on those on duty, and the potential for security breaches and incidents to increase," Moore points out. "This requires a more robust approach to service monitoring and reporting, and looking to further support the onsite team remotely."
The key for any successful operator in the security market is being able to adapt to the needs of clients and particular circumstances. "Every customer and every location will have different requirements," Towse says. "There are external influences as well such as local demographics, crime statistics, whether it's an area where travellers will congregate, and whether there are events planned in certain areas. Customers want us to be agile."
The optimum model, says Moore, is one that matches the needs of clients with those of their own employees. "The smart security company will hire multiskilled officers, who will be better paid with a better work/life balance," he adds. "This will ultimately lead to lower labour turnover. There will be greater investment in the individual and in providing a true career and personal development path for all the team.
"Perhaps most importantly, though, an optimum model will involve a true partnership between client and service partner - one that sits on a foundation of open and honest communication to develop the security solution and the team working within it."