lobby security

How to Recognize Suspicious Behavior in Your Office Lobby

As we wrote in our post The History and Future of the Office Receptionist, today’s front desk staff usually have to wear many different hats.

In addition to receiving visitors and checking them in, they’re often responsible for other important office work, such as assisting executives, handling accounting and HR tasks, and even supporting customers.

But one of the most important roles that an office’s front desk staff plays is that of the first line of defense in office security efforts.

Your reception staff doesn’t need to don badges to make a big difference in security levels — far from it. By simply staying aware of their surroundings, learning to watch for suspicious behaviors, and practicing what to do if something seems amiss, your front desk staff can play a crucial role in keeping your office safer and more secure.

To make sure your front desk staff understands what to do when they see something suspicious, follow these steps.

Assess the biggest security risks for your type of office

Good safety and security efforts should start with a full risk assessment, and this is no exception. (For more on risk assessments and emergency plans, check out the more thorough article we wrote on emergency planning for industrial companies.)

The biggest risks to your employees’ and property’s safety and security can vary a lot based on what kind of work you do.

For example, in medical, psychiatric, or long-term care facilities, your reception staff might reasonably expect to encounter upset or disoriented patients and their family members occasionally.

In corporate environments or at professional firms, by contrast, the biggest security threats might be corporate espionage from competitors or theft of sensitive data.

And no matter what your business type, your office should have plans in place to protect valuable physical property and prevent potential physical violence.

Once you’ve worked with your team to list potential security threats, it’s time to assess how your front desk staff can help prevent them.

Clarify what constitutes suspicious (or threatening) behavior

Organizations like the Department of Homeland Security and the Anti-Defamation League have helpful resources when it comes to identifying behavior that could indicate things like impending violence or criminal activity.

Receptionists should be aware of the following behaviors, all of which warrant extra scrutiny from law enforcement.

  • Behaviors that indicate nervousness, such as excessive sweating, fidgeting, tunnel vision, or repeatedly looking back over the shoulder
  • Dressing inappropriately for the weather, such as wearing a coat in the heat (perhaps to conceal something under clothes)
  • Nervously adjusting clothing or something under clothing
  • Standing too long in one place or breaking out into a sudden run
  • Showing excessive interest in the details about your facility (such as in shift changes or building infrastructure) or taking photos of the facility
  • Leaving packages or other items unattended
  • Trying to enter the facility unnoticed or under false credentials (for more on the most common ways people try to sneak into an office, check out our full post on the topic)

You might identify more suspicious behaviors specific to the threats you listed in your office’s individual risk assessment, too.

For example, corporate offices that store valuable secrets digitally might assign special importance to checking the packages that people are carrying out of the facility (these days, a single stolen employee laptop can constitute a huge breach).

Medical facilities concerned about mentally unstable visitors might alert their staff to behaviors that could indicate safety issues, such as disorientation, sudden changes in body language, or aggressive or erratic behaviors or language.

Train employees on how to react to suspicious behavior

If you train your front desk staff properly, they should know exactly what to do when they see someone exhibiting possibly dangerous or criminal behavior.

Depending on the threats you’ve identified and the severity of the behavior being observed, their reaction will involve some combination of the following steps.

Note details about the suspicious activity

It’s possible that the details of the suspicious behavior will be very important to law enforcement later, or simply helpful for legal or record-keeping purposes. Receptionists should note what the suspicious visitor looked like, for example, and the exact time and location of the noted behavior.

Check their bias

Human brains are wired to make sweeping generalizations based on past experiences, and bias happens to everyone. The key is to consciously keep that bias in check before making an assumption about someone else’s behavior. Your reception staff needs to understand that they’re looking for suspicious behavior, not “suspicious people.” Making assumptions based solely on someone’s cultural or ethnic background is wrong, and it can also damage your business’ reputation.

Alert the rest of the staff to what’s happening

The front desk staff needs to know exactly who to contact and how to get ahold of them when they notice suspicious activity in the lobby. They should also have backup contacts in case the initial contacts are unavailable. These contacts might include internal security staff or departmental managers.

Investigate the activity

In many cases, of course, suspicious behavior ends up being completely innocuous. If your front desk staff feels comfortable doing so, they may simply approach the person exhibiting the behavior (say, someone who is taking photos or standing in the same place for an extended period of time) and brightly ask how they can help.

Try de-escalation techniques

If someone is exhibiting aggressive or intimidating behaviors, de-escalation techniques can help. These can include maintaining a calm, low tone of voice and neutral expression while making sure that the person exhibiting worrying behaviors doesn’t feel trapped.

Initiate emergency procedures

If the behavior is worrying enough, your front desk staff may decide to go straight to emergency protocols by calling local emergency authorities. Instruct your front desk staff on exactly how they can do this, whether it’s by using the office phone or even a panic button behind the front desk.

The case for allowing receptionists to focus on visitor management

Of course, none of these security tactics will be effective if your front desk staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to actually pay attention to what’s going on in the lobby area.

If they’re overwhelmed with work or focused on tasks that make it impossible to keep their eyes and ears attuned to their surroundings, your office is losing out on a very valuable opportunity to stay safer.

If your front desk staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to actually pay attention to what’s going on around them, you’re missing out on a valuable security opportunity. Click To Tweet

Emphasize to front desk staff that you consider awareness and observation skills to be a key factor in their job success. Allowing your front desk staff to focus exclusively on visitor management can be a good way to drive this point home. Having a visitor-focused front desk has plenty of other perks, too, as we mentioned in our post Why Your Office Might Need a Director of First Impressions.

Finally, if you’re considering upgrading your visitor management procedures, we hope you check out The Receptionist.

Visitor management software has come a long way in recent years. Many simple check-in apps can help you make the upgrade from a physical paper sign-in form (which comes with plenty of security problems and room for error) to a digital one (which can impress your visitors and keep better records).

However, an industry-leading visitor management system goes much further. It can provide real-time visitor evacuation lists in the event of an emergency, and give insights into visitor trends over time. It also allows your administrative staff to customize the check-in process for each type of visitor, adding things like legal agreements and even videos.

To see The Receptionist for yourself, click here to request a personalized demo.

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