G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.
Keep your associates protected.
September 1, 2006
When the man questioned the safety of one of the kitchen outlets in a home she was showing, Janice Flasschoen didn’t know she’d put her own safety at stake by trying to answer him. But she did. The question was in fact a ruse to lure her into a corner. When she bent down to look at the outlet, the man whacked her on the head with a hammer.
The next few moments passed in a flash as Flasschoen, a sales associate with Realty Xperts in Port Orange, Fla., managed to swing around to confront her attacker despite her head wound. Not long before this day in March, she had taken a safety course sponsored by her local board of REALTORS®; Flasschoen credits the lessons she learned in that course with saving her life.
“I remembered the instructor’s words, ‘Don’t submit,’” she says, “because if you do, the attacker can do anything with you—kill you, rape you, whatever. I thought, what’s going to keep this guy from killing me?”
Flasschoen’s story ends well—she was able to find an escape path and run out of the house; when he followed, a group of construction workers apprehended and then held him until the police arrived. But stories involving real estate professionals that end badly are all too common.
Between 2001 and 2004, the latest figures available, 25 real estate salespeople and brokers died as a result of “assaults and violent acts,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sadly, the tragedies continue: In July a practitioner was stabbed 27 times in a model home, according to a story from television station KTVT in Dallas-Fort Worth. In June The Napa Valley (Calif.) Register reported that a practitioner was assaulted in a vacant home but managed to drive her attacker away by fighting back.
As a broker, are you doing enough to protect your sales associates from risk?
Pili Meyer, CRS®, e-PRO®, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Uptown Realty in Port Angeles, Wash., who also teaches safety to practitioners, thinks brokers can do more.
After the murder of Mike Emert, a practitioner in Meyer’s market, in 2001, the Washington Association of REALTORS® joined forces with the police and the state real estate commission to produce a safety guide. Brokers throughout the state became more serious about the issue—at least for a time. But many brokers haven’t put safety programs into place because they haven’t personally encountered serious safety problems, Meyers says.
“Brokers owe it to their associates to have safety programs,” she says.
The best programs, according to Meyer and brokers who have implemented safety measures, include four basic steps.
- Encourage all associates to take a self-defense course. Many REALTOR® associations host these courses, and the lessons they teach can help associates survive an attack—just as Janice Flasschoen did.
- Strip away criminals’ cloak of anonymity. Criminals rely on keeping their identity hidden. Require that new customers come to your office first and share some basic information about themselves before associates go off with them.
- Maintain life-saving information about your associates. If they’re to act fast in helping after an attack, police and doctors need information, such as your associates’ license plate number and medical conditions.
- Reinforce your safety policies. Without repeated reminders, associates won’t build safety practices into their work routine. Hanging a few posters and holding a quarterly safety meeting will go a long way to keeping safety in the spotlight.
Defense class saves a life
Spurred to action by the attack on Flasschoen, her broker, Mark Bundy of Realty Xperts, now insists that his salespeople follow his brokerage’s safety rules—including taking self-defense courses when they’re offered.
“In the past, rarely did the associates go” to the courses, he says. “Now, I’ve asked all of them to go.” And he doesn’t take no for an answer. If his associates miss the course, he stays on them until they sign up.
Flasschoen’s story makes clear that habitual adherence to safety rules is associates’ only effective defense measure given how easily criminals can hide their intent. In Flasschoen’s case, the attacker was caught off guard when the initial blow failed to do the job. That enabled her to go on the attack—but only by sticking to the first rule of self-defense she had learned in her class: Keep your cool; otherwise you’ll misread the situation and make mistakes.
When his hammer blow failed, Flasschoen’s attacker pulled out a gun. But Flasschoen didn't panic. “He was standing there holding a hammer in one hand and a gun in the other. He had this grin on his face, like he was proud of what he’d done and that I was going down.
“I thought, ‘If I don’t make this blow count, he’ll shoot me,’ she says. “So I kicked him between the legs, and he threw the gun aside. Then I knew that either the gun wasn’t loaded or it wasn’t real. We went round and round in a circle. He kept swinging the hammer, and I took some severe blows.”
After cornering him, Flasschoen found an opportunity to escape; when her attacker followed her outside, he tripped over the root of a tree and fell to the ground, dropping the hammer. She picked up the hammer and started to hit him on his back. That’s when nearby construction workers, hearing her screams, came to her assistance. The attacker has since pleaded no contest and is awaiting sentencing.
Flasschoen had to have her head stitched, and when she kicked her attacker, she reinjured an old ankle injury, which has led to a bone infection that’s still being treated. But she's glad to be alive.
Meet at the office first
It’s impossible to know whether Flasschoen’s attacker would have acted as he did had he first met her at the brokerage office and disclosed his identity. But brokers agree that requiring initial office visits and having associates gather and put on file customers’ identifying information—type of car, license number, a photocopy of the person’s driver’s license—helps deter crime, because criminals don’t want their identity disclosed.
To add to the deterrence effect, have associates make a show of handing the information to another person in the office rather than just sticking it in a folder and leaving it on a desk. Handing it to someone puts would-be attackers on notice that at least one other person knows of the information. It’s also a good idea to have associates introduce new customers to colleagues or to support staff before leaving the office. The introductions let those with criminal intent know they’ve been visually identified by people who can provide that information to police—an important point if the would-be attacker has given false information.
For further deterrence, establish an itinerary or travel log system, and have associates let customers know about it. Under these systems, associates write down where they’re going, with whom, and when they expect to return. If they’re not back when noted, the manager or another person in the office calls the associate’s cell phone to make sure there isn’t a problem. That lets criminals know that the office is prepared to act if the associate is delayed.
Taken for a ride
To be sure, maintaining an office-first policy is no guarantee of safety. Pili Meyer found this out the hard way early in her real estate career when a young couple interested in looking at homes came to her office.
There were several things about the buyers that probably would have raised suspicion in more seasoned sales associates, but Meyer had been selling for just a few months at the time and was caught off guard. Among other things, comments the buyers made about their history and what they were looking for were inconsistent. In addition, the couple was dressed unusually.
“They were in their early 20s and looked like they’d been camping,” she says. Meyer dismissed the couple’s appearance because it’s not unusual for people to go camping in her part of Washington, fall in love with the area, and want to see homes there.
Luckily for Meyer, the police stepped in and arrested the couple for felony auto theft right after she packed them into her car to show them properties. The couple had earlier stolen a yacht, which they discovered wasn’t working. They swam ashore, stole a car, and then tried to swindle money from a minister. The minister, suspecting they were trying to run a scam, alerted the police, who spotted the stolen car outside the brokerage just after the couple had gotten into Meyer’s car.
Meyer tells the story in her safety classes to illustrate how easily associates can be lured into unsafe situations. Among the defense tips she shares is what she considers an effective rejoinder for associates when they sense something is amiss and need a quick exit. “Say ‘Oh, my gosh, is this Friday? I’ve got another appointment!’”
In an ironic twist, Meyer says, she learned the line from an Atlanta associate who heard it from her would-be attacker. The associate met a buyer who wanted to look only at vacant houses and said he was going to pay cash within 14 days. Rather than race out to show him homes, the associate told the prospect that her husband would accompany them on the showings, because he was in real estate, too, and hadn’t yet seen the properties.
The prospect’s response? “Oh, my gosh, is this Friday? I’ve got another appointment!”
“The associate told me that the New Jersey police later arrested the man for murder,” Meyer says. “And they called to tell her that her business card was in his wallet.”
After an attack
Despite your best efforts, there’s always the chance one of your associates could be attacked or robbed. But you don’t have to leave the aftermath of an attack to chance.
The still-unsolved murder of two colleagues of associate broker and branch manager Jim McNabb, CRB, e-PRO®, a few years ago awakened him to information gaps that can impede the work of police and doctors.
On Christmas day in 2003, Bob and Idella Young, senior citizens who owned a real estate brokerage and property management company in Nampa, Idaho, and who were known for their work with the homeless, were bound and stabbed to death. Police offered a $1,000 reward for information, but nothing has turned up and leads are slim.
McNabb, of Coldwell Banker Aspen Realty in Nampa, has since created an associate ID form to keep vital associate information in a central, secure place. The form includes the associate’s name, address, emergency contact, information on the car the person drives, and a list of primary physicians and special medications. The information gives him something to hand to police or doctors should a crime occur, because after an attack is no time to try to gather this information.
“Look around your office at your associates,” he says. “Do you know these things about them? I do now,” he says.
You can’t guarantee your associates won’t become victims of violence, but that doesn’t mean you should wait until an attack hits close to home to take action.
Annual spotlight on safety
REALTOR® Safety Week is Sept. 10–16. Take stock of what you’re doing to promote the safety of your sales associates. Many resources, such as posters, a video, and safety guides, are already developed and free for you to use. To access the material, click Current Links at REALTOR.org/realtormag.
Lessening the chance of an attack
Thinking about implementing a safety program? Start with these ideas from brokers who’ve put measures in place.
- Office appointments. Require associates to ask buyers to meet them at the office for appointments, not at the property. That way associates can get to know customers before they’re alone with them.
- Introductions. When buyers arrive at the office, have associates introduce them to others there, so if necessary, their colleagues can tell the broker, the police, or others what the people look like. It also serves as a deterrent. People who are using the pretense of home shopping to commit a crime don’t want to be identified.
- Identity verifications. At the office, have associates verify buyers’ identity—name, phone number, and car license plate number—when the buyers come in for the first time. That information can alert you to potential trouble, if the buyers refuse to give it, for example. Collecting it also acts as a deterrent.
- ID records. Require associates to make a photocopy of the buyers’ driver’s license and ensure buyers see the copy handed to another person in the office rather than just placed in a folder. That way buyers know somebody can identify them. Front office staff can play a helpful role in this exercise if they’re trained to ask associates as they leave, “Hey, did you get that safety information from the prospect?”
- Refusals. If buyers refuse to identify themselves, associates are to explain that their office policy requires it. If the refusal persists, associates mustn’t work with them.
- Itineraries. Before they leave the office, have associates enter into a log where they’re going, with whom they’re going, the times of their showings, and when they’re expected back. If they don’t return as planned and aren’t reachable, automatically notify the police to look for the missing associate.
- Exceptional situations. In some cases it’s not practical for buyers to meet first at the office. If buyers call and say they’re at the property and want an associate to meet them, have a buddy go along, especially if a female associate is being asked to meet a male customer. In these cases, it’s best to have a male buddy attend.
- Associate ID form. Keep on file in the office vital information on all associates to give police and doctors a starting point in their work should a crime be committed. Include associate name, address, emergency contact, information on the car they drive, and list of primary physicians and special medications.
- Defense classes. Require your associates to take a defense class. Don’t make it optional. In some cases the local board will offer one. If not, call your state association for nearby options.
- Safety posters. Posters depicting best practices in safety can help keep the issue fresh in your associates’ minds. Place them where they’ll be the last thing associates see before they leave the office. You can make the posters yourself, based on information available from NAR and other sources. The Arizona Association of REALTORS®’ Web site maintains posters developed by the Washington Association of REALTORS®.
- Lobby signs. Create lobby signs to alert buyers that, for the safety of all customers and associates, they’ll be asked to show their driver’s license before being shown homes.
- Quarterly meetings. Devote one sales meeting every three months to personal safety. Regular meetings reinforce the topic’s importance and keep it on associates’ radar screen.