Safety starts at front desk Receptionists: Seminar provides them with tips on how to head off crime in the workplace, calm disgruntled employees and avoid violence.

July 29, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

You'd think a receptionist's duties would be limited to answering phones and greeting clients.

According to a safety seminar held yesterday by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., it appears the job description also includes preventing office theft, soothing disgruntled employees and asking for detailed information from those calling in bomb threats.

"When workplace violence occurs, some receptionists think, 'Oh goodness, we're always the first one to be killed,' " said Joanne T. Hiss, a corporate security analyst with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"That's true. It's nothing personal. You're just the first one the assailant sees," she told an audience of nearly 60 receptionists who work at businesses in downtown Baltimore.

The Downtown Partnership, a quasi-private business group, characterized the preparedness seminar as the first of its type in Baltimore.

The seminar consisted of lectures from Baltimore police officers and other safety experts who showed video clips demonstrating possible incidents.

"The most logical place to start is with receptionists," said Larry Lewis, the partnership's safety program coordinator, who developed the seminar.

The seminar was scheduled before two police officers were killed by an intruder in the U.S. Capitol Friday, but that incident lent poignancy to the lecture.

"As of last Friday, you can see what can happen," Hiss said, referring to the shooting. "You'll encounter all kinds of people -- vagrants, alcoholics, drug users, angry vendors and irate former employees," she said. "You have a tough job."

Professional Secretaries International, a 40,000-member trade group based in Kansas City, Mo., said it supports such training courses but warns against businesses' asking receptionists to serve as security guards, said Rick Stroud, a spokesman for the group.

"There is a gatekeeping function that goes along with the job, but an administrative staff shouldn't be asked to defuse unsafe or emotionally charged situations," Stroud said.

Receptionists' salaries average $16,000 to $20,000, he said. "They are still very low-paid, although they are the public relations ambassador for an organization and they may encounter danger," Stroud said.

Some receptionists agreed.

"They are asking us to put our lives on the line. It's a big responsibility," said Shirlette Harrison, a receptionist for six years at Ayers-Saint-Gross Inc., an architectural firm on St. Paul Street.

"Considering what I'm getting paid, maybe I should find another job," she said.

Carol Allen of the Baltimore Office of Promotion said, "All the training I've received was how to use the phone. That's it. All this other stuff is blowing me away."

Karen Mattle, who has been a receptionist with Hopkins-Lull Associates, a staffing agency on Fayette Street, for three weeks, said she is not overwhelmed.

"After all, I am the first person someone sees when they walk in the office," she said. "I hope I won't have to use any of this information, but it's good to know."

In Baltimore, office thefts are a greater concern than workplace violence.

In the first six months of 1998, there were 1,500 reports of larcenies, thefts and robberies in downtown Baltimore. Of those, 270 occurred in office buildings, said Sgt. Randy Dull of the Police Department's major crime unit in the Central District.

To prevent office theft, receptionists are encouraged to trust their instincts, get to know security officers in the building, avoid stereotyping people and "look the person right in the face," said Ken Driscoll, another officer in the Central District's major crime unit.

Avoiding stereotypes is also important, he said. "These guys wear the best clothes and the best shoes. They look slick, like they belong there," he said.

The police officers also advised the receptionists to be mindful of a building's trouble spots: the reception area, stairwells, elevators and restrooms.

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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