Frontline workers say management isn’t listening to them

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Nov 12, 2021

Frontline workers have been repeatedly praised over the past year-plus for being the heroes who keep things together at retail despite the dangers and job challenges created by the pandemic. Many of those associates, however, feel that they are not being heard by management when it comes to important issues affecting their jobs, personal wellbeing and company performance overall.

A new SafetyCulture survey finds that 23 percent of frontline workers in the U.S. feel they are rarely or never listened to by management when it comes to organizational concerns. Add in 42 percent that say that management sometimes hears their concerns and you have the makings of a communication breakdown that could lead to employee turnover.

The research found that the issues most important to associates are operations (51 percent), safety (44 percent), health and wellbeing (40 percent), general issues observed (32 percent), management style (30 percent), inclusion and diversity (23 percent) and social issues (22 percent).

Twenty-two percent of workers say that communication within their organizations is from the top-down only. Thirty-four percent feel discouraged from providing feedback, assuming that nothing will get done.

Workers also express concerns over reprisals for reporting issues to management. Thirty-six percent of frontline employees say that alerting management to safety or quality management issues could lead to their dismissal, including concerns over COVID-19 protocols.

“It’s clear that these critical workers want a say in the operations and running of their workplaces,” Bob Butler, general manager of SafetyCulture, said in a statement. “Two-way communication between frontline workers and management is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it is a business imperative. Leaders need to be arming their teams with the right tools to allow them to add value, be heard, and stay safe.”

Retail has been one of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic when it comes to employee turnover with the industry still down more than 140,000 jobs, according to government statistics cited by Footwear News. This is the reality despite furious recruitment activity that includes signing bonuses, higher hourly pay and other perks.

In a recent RetailWire survey that asked retail employers to compare their current challenges associated with employee turnover to two years ago (pre-pandemic), 48 percent said fatigue and burnout have risen sharply higher. Among items the retailers saw in high demand among job applicants was schedule flexibility, second only to higher wages.

Workers today considering a new job say they are looking for a voice within their organizations, according to SafetyCulture’s survey. Eighty-eight percent rank that as important in their decision-making, as are pay, competitive holiday allowance and training. Seventy percent of workers rank training as important in their job satisfaction.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see major communication issues between frontline workers and management in retail at present? How should management open the lines of communication and act on that information to drive better results?

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Braintrust
"When frontline workers feel cared for, they inject more energy and enthusiasm into the customer experience."
"Bottom line, if retailers don’t figure out how to listen and respond to their frontline, that frontline going to turn over even more than they already are!"
"How do you fix it? You must fix management’s attitude so that they believe people who work in the stores have value."

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23 Comments on "Frontline workers say management isn’t listening to them"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Communication issues are not new, but the pandemic has amplified the problem. The pandemic has created an environment where rules and protocols are constantly changing — sometimes day-to-day — which complicates things significantly. Add to this an environment where all workers are also facing many personal challenges as a result of the pandemic, and it’s not hard to see why the survey results are what they are.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

The current labor challenges retailers are facing might actually help to facilitate two-way communication. It’s not a new problem, but there is more reason than ever to find a way.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

While pay is a factor in The Great Resignation, store conditions and communication are more important factors in the work arena. Management need to listen more intently and ensure that staff is appreciated. This is not a new issue, just really elevated due to what has occurred over the past year.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

The wider question from this is: how many managers walk the floors of the stores? Judging from the complete mess in some stores, it is very clear that not all do. That means they are not looking, listening and learning. And all of that adds up to bad management.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

I’m having a deja vu moment all over again. This issue is what started my consulting and speaking business back in 1971.

My research from earlier days found consistently that as you went through the organizational ranks starting with the C-suite down to cleaning folks and entry level people the satisfaction with being heard, etc. dropped to the negative by 10 percent at each level. And I apologize for using the phrase “down to.” Because it is the “down to” folks that have the greatest insight into the reality of the circumstances.

The principle I preached for a long time was “When people plan the battle, they don’t battle the plan.” Failure to meaningfully engage people – that means more than listening, it means actually acting on what you hear – always leads to demise.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Communications among retail staff especially with hourly employees has been poor, and usually based on a gross misconception that the hourly worker just needs to do, not know. The trend towards more and improved communications between and to the people in the trenches is gaining traction among some retailers that have come to realize its importance (I could list a few). Additionally, there are tools being developed in the marketplace specifically to solve this problem. One – Theatro – improves morale (most hourly employees like to be heard and considered), customer service, and store productivity. This communications problem still exists but it is being address and it won’t be long until it is minimized.

Verlin Youd
BrainTrust

Bob, you are right on. Retailers like Walgreens, Macy’s, Total Wine & More, Tractor Supply, Bass Pro, and many more understand the challenge and the impact of taking action by implementing real solutions that provide immediate value.

Shelley E. Kohan
BrainTrust

The competition among employers is gaining steam with many retailers trying to become employers of choice. The power of employment is shifting from the employer to the employee. Workers are demanding more from employers including making their own shifts, working from where they want, asking for more pay — and they are getting these things right now.

This may also be the rise of union power in the U.S. market as employees are feeling more confident and courageous to “go up against management” and unionize for better pay, benefits, etc.

So retailers NEED to listen up to workers and allow employees to be heard and actively part of the solutions for workplace issues. Open door policies, using apps to collect employee feedback, roundtables (virtual and face-to-face) and being on the front lines to hear from workers will also create open communication lines. A key point for this multigenerational workforce is to REDUCE THE STATUS DIFFERENCE between management and workers.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Feeling heard makes workers feel valued — and more likely to stay amid retail’s war for talent.

Companies with a caring team culture that welcomes dialogue will gain an edge with retention.

Caring creates a positive ripple effect for companies. When frontline workers feel cared for, they inject more energy and enthusiasm into the customer experience.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Has retail management ever listened to frontline workers? I am quite surprised that the numbers in the surveys are so low. I would have guess the negative side of the questions would be 70 percent-plus.

How do you fix it? You must fix management’s attitude so that they believe people who work in the stores have value. Even today as staff becomes harder to replace, I am sure management still looks at the store staff as “replaceables.”

Laura Davis-Taylor
BrainTrust

Perfectly stated Gene. At the heart of the matter, this is the issue.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust
I genuinely believe that people want to do a great job for their employers, and part of that is having a communicative environment. Problem is that most management feel overwhelmed with all the issues they face daily. Beyond that, employees hear and see advertised that some companies will say yes to all potential employee desires. On television, I see Amazon saying yes to their demands, like this job cannot interfere with my other, it’d be nice if you paid my tuition and on and on. That mentality spreads and can make it very hard on employers trying to secure effective staff members. The other marker of management not responding or not listening I am sure is rampant. I don’t believe that it is management’s desire, but with all the responsibilities being poured on everyone it is a sure bet there are going to be differences of opinion and a lot of emotion in all businesses. The best management key? Take ten minutes with each shift each day and discuss what they are doing with concerns… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

There’s no mystery here. I’m reminded of Steve Burd, former CEO of Safeway, who used to visit stores and talk with managers, staff, and customers. Leaders who stay cooped up in offices can’t hope to compete against competitors who are always listening.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

When I worked in department stores the best – and scariest – days were the visits from the home office. It made the store, and all who worked there, better.

I’m with Neil. By the look of the chaos I have seen on some sales floors lately it looks like there is no one minding the store.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Hi Georganne! I was waiting in the lobby of the downtown Denver Marriott one day when chairman Bill Marriott came in with his roller luggage. He greeted each associate, then asked each customer what their experience had been. That kind of servant leadership makes all the difference!

David Spear
BrainTrust

For all of the advantages of remote work, it can create silos across organizations where communication suffers. And when communication suffers, there tends to be big disconnects between management and employees. Leaders must always remind themselves that they didn’t start with a C-level job. They earned these roles by listening, learning and putting themselves in uncomfortable situations where their leadership skills were tested and refined. High quality leaders tour the factories, walk the floors, look at the warehouses, talk to employees, have coffee with the “regular” people. Having a C in a title or a S before VP shouldn’t stop senior leadership from understanding the rhythm of people, product and customers. Remember, when taking on the mantle of leadership, you give up the right of having a bad day. Leaders lead and despite all the shiny new technology in the marketplace, there is no substitute for servant leadership. It’s time for all of our senior leadership in all industries to engage with employees and get back to the basics.

Scott Norris
Guest

So much agreement here. Sadly, all too many execs do just take the revolving door from organization to organization, so within the context of a given company, yes they did start with a C-level job. (Let’s be real, they probably interned at their father’s company and got socially accepted at an Ivy League university, then went straight to an upper-floor job.) There are plenty of great companies where leadership worked their way up from the shop floor, but those aren’t the ones getting poor scores on surveys like these.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

How many retailers have a formal “listen and learn” process? How many retailers have regular, mandated branching schedules? What’s the process of improving the efficiency of different processes, or localizing product? Is it all about data, or can a whole different layer be tapped into with some human interaction? Tech and digital and data are all great, but it all gets sorted out at the human to human level.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

The key to retention and engagement is caring, and caring is all about listening and taking action. Those businesses and managers who have learned to listen and ask questions and take action are winning the war for workers.

When was the last time a manager asked their employees what is the dumbest rule we have around here, or what is the one thing we could do to help you be more effective?

The rule may seem dumb, but maybe it is a government mandate that the retailer needs to educate the employee about. Or maybe the rule is really dumb, and it needs to be changed.

Verlin Youd
BrainTrust
Yes, there is a huge gulf of communication between store teams and headquarters. This has become even more apparent and more urgent as democratization of communication becomes ubiquitous across our entire society, thanks to social media and modern technologies. If a store team member is not connected to their peers and management, real time and all the time, they are going to feel they are disconnected and that not only do their thoughts and opinions not matter, but also that they don’t matter to that organization. In this situation, there is no way anyone can really listen to the frontline. At the same time, if a leadership team — including HQ — is not connected to their frontline store team members they have no chance of having the agility and adaptability needed to survive in today’s fast-paced retail market. In this situation, there is no way that leadership can show they are listening and responding. As Bob Amster mentioned, some retailers understand the issue and are driving real solutions to not only address the issue,… Read more »
RandyDandy
Guest
17 days 4 hours ago
Consider this: on the few occasions management (all the way to the top) might visit—and, perhaps, work alongside staff on—sales floors–they’re prone to interpret and project a clear understanding of conditions, good and bad, for their workers. (Let’s hope they’re that adept!) Meanwhile, they then go back to their “towers” and enact sweeping proclamations. Which often affects workers in a helpful, but too broad a way. Think of it as “watered down” rather than the “full strength” that each worker might want. But it isn’t possible to fulfill each frontline staff person’s desires at work: because no two employees are exactly alike. So, as has been the case with the initial pandemic lockdown, and various versions opening and closing since, the public-facing people ride the “coaster” while the behind-the-scenes persons do more “coasting.” It’s not that, deep down, executives wouldn’t want to side with some employees who wanna remove plexiglas (and masks) from their faces, or the reverse (of keeping things in place). But imagine the lack of control, which is key yet somewhat illusive,… Read more »
Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Communication has always been a major issue in frontline retail. The communication pipeline is too slow with management receiving information about a problem long after a makeshift solution has already been developed by the assistant store manager and his on-shift employees. These won’t get reported upstream, neither as a problem or a successful solution resulting in the same problems plaguing the retailer over and over again.

Establishing dependencies, ways to celebrate these small wins and bring these back to HQ would be critical to retailer success, but with high turnover, localized management engagement, and short term drive there are few avenues to break this trend. Ensuring employee benefits will keep them on board, establishing clear engagement from Corporate, and evaluating long term trends instead of performance over months and quarters only will extend communication opportunity.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Only 23%? Sadly, clueless management is nothing new: I think you’d have gotten an earful in 1921 and — this post’s best efforts notwithstanding — I expect you’ll get one in 2121 as well (or the AI bots that absorb our essences will).

What’s missing here is the other side: is management not listening, or is it merely not giving the response wanted? Not every observation is accurate … not every idea is a good one … and the right answer is sometimes “no.”

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"When frontline workers feel cared for, they inject more energy and enthusiasm into the customer experience."
"Bottom line, if retailers don’t figure out how to listen and respond to their frontline, that frontline going to turn over even more than they already are!"
"How do you fix it? You must fix management’s attitude so that they believe people who work in the stores have value."

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