High street bank Natwest has found itself at the centre of a media storm after a staff member went on an anti-vegan rant to a customer.
The case, which involved a vegan loan applicant being told by a Natwest staff member that “all vegans should be punched in the face”, raises questions about the impact employees, and HR, can have on their firm’s brand.
The debacle made headlines this week after a Bristol-based Natwest customer phoned up for a loan with the bank.
Although she did not meet requirements for the bank to lend her money, a recording of the call revealed that she was not spoken to in a manner which would not suggest great customer service.
After learning that the customer was vegan, the staff member was recorded saying that “all vegans should be punched in the face”.
He also told her that he felt vegans were forcing their beliefs on him. The customer added that she felt his tone was “really unpleasant” and didn’t feel she should be punished for her lifestyle choices by a “big organisation.”
Natwest has since released a statement that the way in which the woman was spoken to was “wholly inappropriate”.
After listening to the recording, the bank decided to accept her loan request – for £400 – and pay out just under £200 in compensation.
Soy, what next?
In the age of transparency, incidents like this matter.
Last year, Starbucks had to deal with, amongst other incidents, public fallout after an employee mocked a customer with a disability.
The customer had a lisp and the employee wrote his name on the cup as “SSSAM” – mimicking his voice.
Like the Natwest story, both of these incidents have an impact on the firm’s employer branding.
Poor practice, especially within visible, customer-facing roles – or roles susceptible to media coverages – raises questions about how engaged with their job or how aligned with the firm’s corporate ethos these employees truly felt.
The impact for brands is huge if staff are not upholding the tone or image that is expected of the firm. A 2013 study found that customers rank employee actions and words much higher than a company’s PR department, CEO, or Founder.
Writing in Forbes, William Arruda, a branding expert, re-emphasised that it is a firm’s staff, and their actions, which really embody what a firm stands for – more than any PR.
“When a customer interacts with one of your frontline employees, or with the work produced by your behind-the-scenes employees, everything your PR and marketing departments have done will be put to the test.”
To build a strong brand, he advised that employees need to be ambassadors, adding the best “employees who are thoroughly engaged, connected and committed.”
HR needs to get on the pulse
Often, improving employee engagement is incumbent on HR. They are looked to improve how employees feel about the firm and how they engage with their work.
One way that this can be reached, and one that is increasingly popular with larger firms, is allowing employees to bring their “authentic selves” to work rather than a workplace persona they feel the company wants.
Research shows this improves turnover rates, gets employees performing tasks more effectively and boosts overall engagement and performance.
However, in the Natwest case, this would raise questions about voicing opinions that are against the brand ethos or against – such as voicing anti-vegan opinions.
Yet, this could be because simply put, employees don’t really know what their company stands for.
A recent survey found that only just over four in 10 of employees knew what their firm stands for.
It is up to HR, alongside senior leadership, to connect the corporate and the personal. Arruda adds: “The most successful companies help employees understand their personal brands, capitalizing on the integration of these individual traits with the broader corporate objectives.”
This involves good communication, learning and development, as well as adequate re-education or discipline, if necessary, if things go awry.
What would you do in this situation? Tell us in the comments….