Is staff satisfaction at an all-time low, and what can I do about it?

If you're experiencing disgruntled staff, more grievances and disputes – you aren't alone

It's the question I have been asked most often in the last few weeks. We work with over 250 large employers, many in the retail and consumer sector, and there's a new people-related theme emerging across the board.

Businesses are noticing their people are behaving differently as we emerge from the restrictions we have all been living with. In short, we are seeing more employees being difficult.

What are the trends?

Grievances are on the rise, more claims are hitting employers from current and former employees, and people just aren’t as settled as they were. Statistics in Employment Tribunals showed an accelerating trend of increased claims submitted across 2020 (with claims at the highest level seen since 2013/2014).

We have noticed a significant rise in claims, particularly from current employees, which often creates a difficult ongoing employment relationship. These are possibly borne from genuine worries and anxieties linked to COVID that long-standing employees want straightened out or because disgruntled employees have until now felt too insecure to complain.

So if you are experiencing this in your team or across your organisation – don't worry, it's not just you. It's happening all over the High Street. But what exactly is going on and what should you do about it?

2020 may have been the final straw

Life for retail staff was already challenging pre Covid. Our 2019 survey of front-line retail workers reported that one in ten suffered harassment from a customer or colleague, and most were unhappy with how their employer dealt with it. It's unlikely that issue has gone away – in fact, the requirement to ask customers to adhere to COVID-secure measures (such as facemask-wearing) has in many cases exacerbated this.

Added to that they have had all the stresses of the last 15 months at home and at work, friends or family furloughed, and uncertainty about their future. And, of course, the usual ways of boosting morale haven’t all been there – bringing teams of people together, the celebrations, the break in the sun.

As it becomes clear that vacancies are on the rise, and there is a shortage of certain types of staff, people have become more confident to complain. If their demands aren’t met, they are confident they can go elsewhere.

So how to move forward?

I don’t think you need a fundamental re-think of your people strategy. Being aware this is a trend and accepting people won't be behaving normally just now is a good starting point. Sharing this fact and providing focused training for managers will definitely help.

But getting back to those things that you know helped with engagement should be a priority – whilst keeping people safe how can you quickly get back to doing more of what tied your people to your organisation.

If you are not as confident as to what that looks like now, consider surveying staff around engagement to find out what would make them feel happier about work (but take advice on how to do it well as undertaking this exercise poorly can backfire).

We have also seen more employers giving some thought to setting up staff consultation bodies. Employees will feel more empowered and you get an earlier warning of issues which are causing employees to feel dissatisfied.

Finally, your HR team will be at the sharp end of this. Make sure you don’t forget to support those people who are managing employee relations at a time when everyone is feeling unsettled.   

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