Stressed Workers and Security Events: Retailers Must Walk a Fine Line

Stressed retail worker

Crises often bring out the best in people—and there has been many examples of that during the current pandemic—but they also cause anxiety and frayed nerves. Workers who are furloughed may return harboring resentment and exhibiting negative attitudes. Even after retail returns to “normal,” there may be lingering personnel issues that managers will need to monitor.

When workplace cultures turn toxic, odds increase for incidents of workplace violence, including bullying, physical altercations, and even mass shootings. For example, the conclusion of an investigation into the killing of two supervisors by a Southern California Edison (SCE) employee was that an unhealthy work environment was a contributing factor.

“Analysis identified key issues which include workplace climate and culture concerns and stressors related primarily to a fundamental lack of leadership in many areas, and resulting in loss of trust, lack of respect, fear of retaliation, inefficient decision-making processes, poor communication, lack of work-life balance, abusive management styles, lack of management accountability, perceived absence of fairness, and a shortage of recognition.”

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Some level of occupational stress is typically part of a competitive retail environment. Indeed, some research has found that stressors may push store associates to perform better. “We found that there was a positive relationship between occupational stress and task performance,” concluded a 2018 study titled “Workplace bullying and task performance: A study on salespeople in retail industry” published in Management Science Letters. “This finding indicates that a salesperson who has a high level of occupational stress could improve their performance in the retail industry.”

Thus, retailers may need to perform a bit of a balancing act—allow enough stress into the work environment to motivate workers, but not so much that it creates a toxic environment that can contribute to a critical security event.

The Dividing Line

By allowing aggressive conduct to go unpunished or ignoring intimidating or disrespectful behavior, a truly hostile work environment can take shape rather than just a competitive one.

Loss prevention and workplace violence prevention teams may want to audit their organizations for general markers of a toxic work environment. These include a highly authoritarian management style, unpredictable or inconsistent supervision, selective rule enforcement, excessive work pressures, role ambiguity, and lack of employee participation in the decision-making process. For a healthy work culture to exist, employees need to feel comfortable reporting such behavior and be confident that a serious investigation will follow all complaints.

The SCE workplace shooting investigation suggested three additional questions that LP leaders may want to ask as they examine the intersection of workplace culture and workplace violence:

1. Is security consistent? While physical security measures are never likely to prevent an employee shooting event, employees can be resentful if they know security measures are stricter at some facilities, buildings, or stores than at their own facility. That type of security disparity can be read by workers as evidence that management is less concerned with their safety than the safety of other employees.

2. Are personnel policies implemented consistently? If employees perceive that problem employees may be disciplined in some cases but promoted in others, they tend to think “it’s who you know” that matters most, and resentment builds.

3. Are employees’ goals attainable? It’s possible that an employee working in one area will be accountable for a goal or project that relies on decisions made in another silo. If an employee is held accountable for a goal or project that he or she is powerless to achieve, dangerous frustrations can develop.

Recommendations from Practitioners

Additionally, organizations might want to consider other recommendations from security practitioners and consultants.

  • Create a “dashboard” indicator of the workplace climate so leaders will be alerted when problems in the culture may be developing. A “climate dashboard” might include trailing three-month data, same timeframe previous year data, and/or year-to-date data on several cultural indicators, such as number of workers’ compensation cases that are stress-related; number of complaints made to human resources and to company hotlines regarding workplace culture or climate issues; and number of worker absences, threats, and increases in requests for employee transfers from a particular store, department, and/or supervisor.
  • Provide employees a chance to occasionally participate in “skip-level meetings” to gauge the culture and climate in a specific group or unit. A skip-level meeting is a chance for line workers to talk freely to management or security teams about issues that may concern them, without feeling intimidated by the presence of their immediate supervisors.
  • Include questions in LP store audits that consider broad cultural issues and permit employees and store managers a chance to directly communicate on the subject.

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