Guide Staff in Dealing with Dangerous Applicants
The manager of a Texas tax credit site reported that a cunning criminal got into the management office by pretending to be a rental applicant. The criminal asked to tour a vacant unit. A female member of the leasing staff, who was on duty alone in the office at the time, had a bad feeling about him. But she shook it off, considering him a prospect, and turned to get her handbag so they could begin the tour. He struck her on the back of the head, grabbed the handbag, and fled the office.
No doubt you, as an owner or manager, have had your share of unsavory applicants. Determining when an applicant actually poses a danger is particularly tricky. It forces you to walk a thin line between protecting yourself from Fair Housing problems and protecting yourself—and your leasing staff—from harm, says management and Fair Housing expert Anne Sadovsky.
To help you balance these two concerns, we spoke with Sadovsky to get tips on how your leasing staff should deal with a dangerous—or apparently dangerous—situation, without violating Fair Housing laws.
Fair Housing vs. Safety: A Risk Management Decision
Balancing your leasing staff's safety with Fair Housing concerns can be one of the trickiest issues you will ever face. One reason is that by telling staff members to make their safety a priority, you are giving them a lot of discretion, which could get you into Fair Housing trouble. For example, Sadovsky tells of a female leasing staff member whose bad experience with an Asian man has led to her turning away all Asian male applicants.
On the other hand, you want your leasing staff members to feel that you support their decisions regarding their own safety. After all, the safety of your leasing staff is more important than your fear of a potential Fair Housing lawsuit.
Give Staff Tips for Staying Safe
To help shield your leasing staff from harm while protecting yourself from Fair Housing problems, tell them how to balance safety concerns with Fair Housing concerns. Give them tips on staying safe in the leasing office, as well as steps to take if they feel threatened by an applicant. And tell them to document any incidents that occur, to better protect everyone against potential Fair Housing lawsuits or complaints.
Here are 12 tips to give your staff:
Ask for photo identification. Require leasing staff to ask applicants for a government-issued photo ID before giving a unit tour. Also require staff to make a copy of the photo ID and lock it in the office or file cabinet until the end of the unit tour, Sadovsky advises. Tell them they must request a photo ID from every applicant, not just those who make them feel uncomfortable, she suggests.
Note that whenever you photocopy an applicant's ID, you must return it, or destroy it in his presence. Otherwise, you could end up with a Fair Housing complaint: If you have copies of applicants’ photo IDs in your files, you could be accused of racial profiling, she warns. Once you have approved the applicant, you can photocopy the ID for the company file, if that is company policy and you are consistent, she adds.
PRACTICAL POINTER: In the event multiple applicants want to tour units together, you can require a photo ID from each member of the group, or you can let one of them provide a single ID on behalf of everyone, advises Sadovsky.
Carry mobile radio or cell phone. Require all leasing staff members to carry a mobile radio or cell phone on all unit tours, Sadovsky says. This way, any member can place a call in the event of an attack or other emergency.
Notify coworker when showing unit. Have leasing staff work on a “buddy system” so another staff member always knows where her “buddy” is. Do this by notifying a coworker or an on-site maintenance staff member whenever a leasing staff member takes an applicant on a tour of a vacant unit.
Try to show by appointment only. This may be a hard rule to follow every time, but it could work to keep leasing staff safe. A criminal is unlikely to call in advance and make an appointment for a later date if he is planning to commit a crime, Sadvosky points out. If your site's policy is to show units to drop-in applicants, urge leasing staff to make sure a coworker knows where the staff member is.
Keep music or TV on in back office. If the office is short-staffed on any given day, a lone staff member can create an appearance of activity by keeping a television or radio turned on in a back room. There is strength in even the appearance of numbers. If a criminal thinks a staff member is not alone in the office, he may decide to forgo committing a crime he was planning.
Work out danger code with maintenance staff. Many maintenance workers are now equipped with cell phones. Instruct your leasing staff to call in the event of an emergency, advises Sadovsky.
Tour with maintenance staff member if feeling threatened. Because there is safety in numbers, you should instruct leasing staff to invite a maintenance worker to accompany the staff member on a unit tour if she feels threatened by an applicant. If an excuse is needed, she can always say she brought the maintenance worker along so he could follow up on work that was previously done in the unit, advises Sadovsky.
Never say you are alone. Tell leasing staff never to say they are alone in the office. Instead, have them follow the next tip as a means of rescheduling the tour.
Say you have a meeting and must reschedule. If a leasing staff member is confronted with an applicant who makes her feel uncomfortable, she could avoid a bad situation by saying that she has another meeting to attend and that she must reschedule the appointment for a different time.
If the applicant insists on waiting, the staff member should say that the other meeting is off-site, Sadovsky recommends. To be extra safe, the staff member should walk out the door with the applicant and leave the grounds for a short while, she adds.
Make effort to reschedule. If a walk-in applicant makes a lone staff member feel uncomfortable, the staff member should do everything possible to schedule the appointment for a later date. This way, if your office is ever challenged on Fair Housing grounds, you have evidence that you were willing to show the applicant a unit, says Sadovsky. Tell the staff member to reschedule the appointment for a time when the office is fully staffed, she adds.
If danger is imminent, call police. The most important advice to reinforce is that if a staff member feels in imminent danger—for example, an applicant becomes verbally or physically abusive, or appears to have a weapon—that individual should protect herself. If a lone staff member feels she is in immediate danger, she should walk the applicant to the door, lock it after the applicant leaves, and call the police, says Sadovsky.
Leasing staff should be encouraged to follow their instincts and do whatever they can to end the confrontation. Any owner or manager would rather deal with a Fair Housing complaint than have their staff members be victims of violent crime, she adds.
Document everything. Instruct leasing staff to record details of any encounter with an applicant that made them feel uncomfortable and that resulted in turning away the applicant, rescheduling an appointment, or calling in another staff member or the police, Sadovsky says. Instruct them to record this information immediately after the applicant leaves.
This allows you to document the reasons for the staff member's behavior, should anyone take issue with it later on, Sadovsky points out. Also, it lets managers review these situations to make sure they are not dealing with a prejudiced or paranoid staff member. And, if the problem lies with the staff member, documenting the incident will allow management to take the appropriate steps, either to train or to fire her.
To encourage leasing staff to record detailed information about an incident with an applicant, tell them to provide the following information:
Applicant's name. This may help a leasing staff member remember the incident in the event of a Fair Housing complaint.
Date and time of incident. It is important to help the leasing staff member recall when the incident occurred, in the event of a lawsuit or complaint. This information can help you make your case. For example, it can prove that the staff member was alone in the office at the time of the incident, which may justify her behavior.
Weather. Weather conditions can also help justify a staff member's fears if, for instance, the applicant came in during a bad storm or other adverse weather condition, such as during a tornado alert.
Applicant's clothing. An applicant's attire can sometimes put a staff member on alert. For example, if the applicant was wearing an insignia of a local street gang reputed to be violent, that would justify the staff member's fears.
Applicant's behavior. Leasing staff should document whether the applicant appeared to be on drugs or was impaired in any way. This also could justify the staff member's fears.
Applicant's conversation. Ask the staff member to recollect as much as possible of the conversation that led her to feel frightened or alarmed.
What occurred. This is the staff member's opportunity to record her side of the story, in case her actions are ever questioned.
Anne Sadovsky, Dallas, TX