'Serious challenge' | Soaring abuse of shop staff is an issue for all HR teams, not just retailers

Soaring abuse of shop staff is an issue for all HR teams, not just retailers

Nine in 10 retail workers have reported suffering abuse from customers as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, but it’s not just an issue for supermarkets’ people officers to solve by themselves...

New figures have revealed that customers are increasingly taking out their frustrations on shop workers. A survey of 2000 people, conducted by industry charity The Retail Trust and first shared with ITV News, found that 71% of these owning up to losing their temper at staff as a result of soaring shelf prices.

Around 90% of retail staff told the Trust they have experienced some form of abuse from customers, whilst more than two-thirds say the issue has worsened over the past two years.

Rising abuse

In May, the Retail Trust reported that 30% of retailers had flagged store abuse as one of the top issues impacting staff wellbeing.

One store manager who responded to the Retail Trust said: “I used to say to my colleagues that for every customer who leaves you feeling upset, there are ten or twenty nice ones. But that ratio is changing for the worse, and how we’re all feeling means we can’t brush it off as easily. We’re here to serve customers, but they’re not always right.”

The issues for HR

New laws were imposed earlier this year which would see anyone convicted of attacking a shop worker be handed a tougher penalty. Changes to the the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into effect this summer, ensuring that common assault against anyone working in a retail environment is now classed as an aggravated offence.

But even with these harsher punishments for perpetrators, such incidents can have huge ramifications for HR leaders with the retail sector, chief among them being the impact on staff wellbeing and attrition.

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In fact, a 2022 report by the Retail Trust has found that one in five (21%) British retail workers and nearly a third (31%) of people working for the UK’s biggest retailers are planning to quit the sector. The survey of more than 1,500 retail employees, published within its Health of Retail report, found that most of those intending to leave blame concerns around their finances, rising levels of abuse from customers, and deteriorating mental health coming out of the pandemic.

More than eight out of 10 (83%) said they have experienced a decline in their mental health in the last year, with retail workers aged between aged 16 and 29, those working in distribution and warehouses, and employees of larger retailers found to be struggling the most.

85% of retail managers also reported an increase in mental health problems among their teams and more than half (54%) said team members have experienced issues that they felt ill-equipped to deal with. A quarter (26%) of retail managers say they also want to leave the industry.

Chris Brook-Carter, chief executive of the Retail Trust, said: “People working in retail have moved from one period of turmoil to another. They are exhausted after two years of a global pandemic and now facing a world dominated by a brutal war while coming to terms with a cost of living crisis, with inflation at a 40-year-high, that threatens to put our standards of living back decades.

“We believe the retail industry is committed to improving workplace wellbeing but our research shows there’s a clear gap between how retailers think their employees are feeling and the reality. A worrying 83% of retail workers have experienced a deterioration in their mental health and too few line mangers say they are equipped to deal with this. This poses a serious long-term challenge as more and more people turn away from the sector. The retail industry must foster a happy and healthy workforce to attract and retain the talent it needs to survive and thrive.”

Why all HR teams can make a difference

However, this issue is not one for retailers’ HR leaders to solve alone. Let’s not forget that the abusers themselves will, for the most part, have jobs of their own.

Everyone should, of course, realise that physically assaulting an employee is against the law. And while it’s still wholly unacceptable, it is perhaps easier to explain (but not excuse) why someone might act out verbally without realising the scale of their actions. It’s therefore important for all HR teams to consider how to best support their workforce’s financial wellbeing in ways that helps prevent them becoming so stressed that they lash out at undeserving front-end workers.

Pay rises are the most obvious and most direct resolution to employee concerns about their household bills, but many firms will not be capable of raising every worker’s pay above the necessary inflation threshold to actually make a difference.

It’s therefore worth HR’s time to consider other financial wellbeing options. In fact, research published in 2022 from global life insurance provider MetLife found that one in two employees would sacrifice more of their basic salary to get a personalised employee benefits package.

The research was conducted as part of MetLife’s Re:Me report, which looks at how the pandemic has shifted attitudes in the workplace. Among its findings was the discovery that 69% of employers said they’d work harder for an employer who provided benefits that were tailored to their individual needs.

And they’re not looking for 'soft' perks like gym membership or employee discounts (many of which, in any case, became obsolete during lockdown and the peak of the pandemic). Income protection was the 13th most desired benefit prior to the pandemic; MetLife’s research discovered that it now stands at 3rd, with a further 58% of employees stating that they’d like their benefits package to cover all their dependents, including their spouse.

There are also other steps that employers can take to help employees make their money go further. Below, Towergate Health & Protection suggested:

Salary sacrifice

Offering a salary sacrifice scheme enables employees to maximise their pre-tax income. Employees can pay a comparatively reduced price on things like childcare costs, commuting to and from work, and even their pension. If an employee is close to the higher rate income tax band, a voluntary increase in their monthly pension contribution could help them to stay within the 20% basic rate tax band.

Expert guidance

Expert guidance is often more easily, and freely, available than people realise. In fact, it may already be provided as a cost-free add-on to other health and wellbeing support. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) often form part of the offering within other employee benefits, such as group risk benefits, and can provide confidential advice to employees on a number of concerns, including money worries.

Employee discounts

Employee discount schemes can help employees’ money to go further. Cashback cards can be made available for everything from the weekly grocery shop to clothes, DIY items, and days out. These come at a variety of costs, depending on the offer, or are sometimes even free to encourage store loyalty. Some employee discount schemes also provide access to a free credit-checking service, and money advice lines, to help employees to keep on top of their finances.

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