Residential leasing has become a high-risk job

This article, authored by Dorothy Gourley, award winning national apartment consultant.  This first appeared in IREM’s Journal of Property Management in 1995.

 Abstract: Residential leasing has become a high-risk job as a result of the public’s easy access to the leasing office. Statistics show that the number of leasing consultants assaulted or raped has increased significantly since 1990. Given the vulnerability of these consultants, real estate managers must adopt measures that help prevent their employees from being victimized. Leasing consultants should be trained to establish personal body boundaries and to adopt body language that conveys confidence and assertiveness. According to an FBI official, assailants are more likely to victimize a person who looks defenseless or unassertive. Consultants should also be trained to be aware of their surroundings at all times. In addition, they must undergo self-protection training, which should cover verbal and physical self-defense methods, legal self-defense weapons, and security tactics.

Dusk. Karen, the leasing consultant, sits alone at her desk in the deserted leasing office, reviewing the day’s visitor cards. Outside a shadowed figure slowly approaches, stops to survey the area, then walks to the window and looks inside. Quietly the figure enters through the open office door. Startled by footsteps, Karen focuses all her attention on the figure silhouetted against the growing darkness. “Hi. I’m here to see an apartment.”

The accessibility of the leasing office to the general public and the vulnerability of leasing consultants showing apartments is rapidly turning residential leasing into a high-risk job. Assaults and rapes involving leasing consultants have increased substantially in the past five years. No longer can managers assume that, “It can’t happen here.”

In a recent article in USA Today, it was estimated that there were 683,000 unreported rapes each year in the United States.

A study by Crime Search of Houston, Texas, found that at the typical apartment community in the area 42 percent of all crimes, including theft, burglary, rape, assault, and criminal mischief, occurred between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Legal terms such as “duty to protect,” “foreseeable security negligence,” and “premises liability” are now appearing in $1-million settlements for assaults on residential properties.

Faced with the daunting statistics, what can real estate managers do to protect their employees from attack?
Training for Awareness

Paxton Quigley, author of Not an Easy Target (Prentice Hall), lists boundary setting, awareness, body language, and self-protection training as the four positive areas that will enable the potential crime victim to surprise the assailant and possibly forestall an attack.

Boundary Setting

Leasing consultants should be trained to establish and maintain personal body boundaries when showing apartments or taking applications. This invisible space shield extends one’s mental and physical strength. According to Ray Hazelwood of the FBI Behavioral Science Services Unit at Quantico, Va., many assailants are more likely to attack a person who appears unassertive or defenseless. The boundary area is an arm’s length, 360 degrees around the body.

Assess yourself and the image you are projecting. Dress for work in business attire that projects a no-nonsense attitude. Keep that high-fashion look for after hours. Avoid expensive jewelry that might trigger an assault that later gets out of hand. Wear shoes that enable you to keep your balance and move quickly.

Some potential assailants will use tricks so that intended victims will temporarily lower their boundaries. One leasing person I know was distracted when a rapist started batting at her long hair and saying “There’s a bee in your hair.”

Body Language

Body language training is an extension of boundary setting that trains agents to appear assertive and confident, even in threatening situations. Quigley states that, “An assertive, self-confident person may prevent as many as 80 percent of potential assaults.”

Practice maintaining strong eye contact, posturing with confidence, walking briskly with purpose, standing straight and proud, and keeping hands visible.

Avoid weak body language signals such as downcast eyes, appearing confused or afraid,ambling along without purpose, and appearing unaware of your surroundings.

Leasing professionals can practice improving body language in front of a mirror. Make strong eye contact with yourself. Show anger. Raise your arm. Point and yell, “Stay back” or “Stay away!” Give strong commands, such as “No.” Do this three times for several days until you have achieved the image you want.

Next, work in pairs and role play these same exercises. Repeat 10 times.

Practice on a stranger (not a prospect). Bring in someone the leasing consultant does not know, and stage a mock incident.

Awareness

Careful isn’t good enough; awareness is your goal. Watch people and take stock of your surroundings. Be aware of what is happening beside you, in front of you, and behind you. When walking down hallways, glance behind you occasionally. Watch for doors partially open or obstacles that limit your view. Proceed around corners cautiously. Hazelwood notes that some assailants use a surprise attack to overpower their victims.

Becoming a keen observer is also a part of increased awareness. Never take a person at face value or just open the door for a delivery, no matter how busy you are. Some criminals pass themselves off as prospects, repairmen, or delivery drivers to catch a victim unawares.

Self-Protection Training

In addition to improving body language and awareness among leasing personnel, it may be wise enroll employees in a crime-protection course or offer one on site. Private security companies, non-profit agencies, and police departments are all possible sources of training.

Course topics should include:

* Developing your personal survival strategy

* Self-awareness techniques

* Verbal and physical self-defense methods

* The use of legal self-defense weapons

* Security tactics on the telephone

* Physiological profile of potential attackers

One group that offers comprehensive self-protection courses is IMPACT International, with national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and chapters throughout the United States. According to Kayla Martin, associate director of the Washington, D.C., IMPACT office, self-protection courses should help every individual, regardless of age, strength, or physical condition to protect him- or herself from attack.

The IMPACT courses range from 20 to 25 hours and include extensive in-class practice sessions so that counteractive strategies become second nature. Some IMPACT groups also offer shorter mini-courses at business sites.

Students also prepare psychologically for attacks, says Martin, by learning how they would react to an assault and by gaining confidence that they can take action. “Every circumstance is different,” notes Martin, “but if techniques are assimilated, you can learn to use your adrenalin to your advantage.”

The IMPACT program has trained over 10,000 graduates, some of whom have used their techniques as long as eight years after graduation.

It is also important to keep training fresh by repeating awareness training at regular intervals and to ensure that new employees receive adequate training. And do not assume that it is only female employees who require training.

Awareness Tips

In addition to improving body language and overall awareness, following some simple, routine procedures will help keep leasing personnel from becoming crime statistics.

In the Office

*Place your desk where you can view the entry area, and if possible, where you can observe the walkway areas to the leasing office.

*Never indicate that you are alone in the office.

*Do not leave your keys on the desk.

*Locate the key cabinet out of sight and never leave it unlocked.

*Never give a prospect a key to view a vacant apartment or wander the grounds unattended.

*Ask all prospects to see a driver’s license or picture identification prior to viewing an apartment. Some companies are requiring leasing consultants to fax a copy of the license to the home office before showing an apartment.

*Ask all delivery personnel for identification, even if they are in uniform. If you are uneasy, call their home office for verification.

*Introduce prospects to other staff members. It is a friendly gesture and may aid in identification at a later time.

*Don’t be fooled by appearances. Making exceptions in asking for identification might also open the door for charges of discrimination.

During the Tour

*Do not assume that daytime is safer than evening or that certain days of the week are safer than others.

*If you are alone in the office and need to leave to show an apartment, call a predesignated person with your destination. Call again when you return.

*Tell a co-worker in the office which apartment you are showing and the route you will take.

*Never allow a prospect to walk behind you during a property tour. Unlock the apartment door and invite the prospect to walk in first.

*Never allow a prospect to get between you and the front door. Leave the front door and all other doors of the apartment open during the demonstration.

*Be particularly on guard when entering laundry rooms, elevators, and recreational areas. And again, do not get cut off from the door.

*Invest in a cellular phone and take it along when walking the property.

*If local law and company policy permit, carry pepper spray or other self-protective device. Have it ready to grab in an emergency, not buried at the bottom of a bag or briefcase.

Safety First

Because their work involves regular contact with strangers and non-traditional work hours, leasing consultants are at high risk of potential assaults. However, with training, common sense, and a few low-cost precautions, that risk can be greatly reduced.

RELATED ARTICLE: MANAGEMENT’S ROLE

Property management companies can reinforce their personal-protection training programs by considering some onsite security steps to further enhance property safety:

* Observe the landscaping throughout the community. Larger, overgrown shrubs make excellent hiding places for assailants.

* Train maintenance staff to check in and survey the situation when they see a leasing consultant demonstrating an apartment.

* If possible, arrange for maintenance staff to work staggered hours so that someone is on site at all times the leasing office is open. This idea has the added benefit of making repair service available to working residents when they are at home.

* Place television surveillance cameras in the leasing office and in entryways.

* Encourage your management staff to participate in local crime-prevention meetings and hold one at each property.

* Obtain regular crime statistics for your neighborhood, and keep staff and residents informed of new trends.

* Have residents and staff carry community photo identification cards for easy recognition.

* Check all entry doors regularly to be sure they are locked and that locks function property.

* Consider perimeter fencing and guarded gates on your communities.

Dorothy Gourley, CAPS, is president of Dorothy Gourley & Associates Inc, Mission Viejo, Calif. She is a national apartment consultant and trainer and was the first recipient of the Dorothy Gourley Award of Excellence presented annually by the Apartment Association of Orange County.

Ms. Gourley is the author of 11 books, a CAM and DRE instructor, and a UCLA graduate with California Lifetime Teaching Credentials. This article is based on her seminar “Safety and Self-Protection for the Leasing Person,” which was previewed at the 1995 Multi Housing World convention.

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