When Device Data Can’t Tell the Whole Story, Asking People for Input May Yield Insight

Even in the era of big data—when too much information is as likely a complaint as too little—stores or LP teams may not know what to make of certain safety or security issues. Technology can often be implemented to provide visibility, but even if stores are awash in IoT devices, there isn’t a sensor for everything. Business value stems from an ability to sense, infer, and act—but what if you can’t get past this first step?

Several years ago, when the Obama administration instructed a task force to examine the issue of sexual assault of college campuses, its top recommendation in the resulting guidance to colleges was this: “The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it—and a climate survey is the best way to do that.”

It’s a viable option for retailers and LP teams anytime they want to address a security risk but they lack a complete understanding of its scale or are unclear about issues surrounding it. For example, not every verbal threat or incident of customer harassment is likely to be reflected in a retail database, so a climate survey can be an important addition in an effort to reduce employees’ exposure.

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It’s also a useful tool to forge a better understanding of an atmosphere that may precede loss events or security problems but isn’t something captured in routine data collection. For example, in a recent survey of businesses—of which nine percent were retailers—employees reported feeling increasing pressure to compromise their organization’s ethics standards. “In 2020, employee pressure was at the highest it has been in the United States since 2000, and it had more than doubled since 2017,” according to the 2021 study by The Ethics & Compliance Initiative, “The State of Ethics & Compliance in the Workplace: A Look at Global Trends.”

Climate surveys may also highlight a discrepancy in the perception of risk between those responsible for formulating security policy, those involved in implementing it, and those for whom the policy is intended to benefit. Mismatched perceptions of risk have grave consequences on working relationships, affect how employees feel about their job and, consequently, how they perform. Long-term, mismatched perceptions can result in companies that downgrade serious risks or miss them altogether.

Climate surveys can be valuable beyond providing insight into the extent of a security risk. They can be used to:

  • Identify gaps by analyzing survey results in comparison to data from incident reports.
  • Learn how perception of risk differs by department, employee level, time of day, store location, and so on.
  • Focus security awareness education on issues that surveys indicate are most important to associates. For example, if employees identify that working alone at night is their top security concern, you can focus employee training on that issue and promote security procedures designed to protect those workers.
  • Indicate if employees are unaware of specific security policies or programs.
  • Indicate how well various aspects of the security program are being implemented.
  • Demonstrate the company’s commitment to address the specific topic of the survey, as well as to employees’ safety and well-being in general.
  • Promote aspects of the security program. For example, surveying workers if they have ever used the company’s safety app reminds them that you have that resource available.
  • Establish a baseline that the LP department can measure future progress against.
  • Raise awareness of security risks and your efforts to combat them.

Climate surveys are vital to developing security programs, but it’s not always easy to know what to ask. The government’s report on sexual assault, for example, acknowledges that colleges avoid conducting them, even if they think it might help, because of being unsure “where to start, how to conduct the survey, and what questions to ask.” Several of its best practice tips, and ideas from security leaders who have conducted perception surveys, may help LP teams or retail stores design security climate surveys that yield greater insight.

  • Define time periods. It is common to ask about the prevalence of certain problematic issues in security climate surveys, but for an accurate measure the survey must clearly define the timeframe being asked about.
  • Define terms. Clumsy college surveys in the past have asked students if they had been “raped” without defining the term or recognizing that some individuals may be reluctant to think of themselves rape victims. Instead, in a workplace violence survey for example, a survey should design questions that describe specific behaviors—being “yelled at” “verbally threatened,” and so on.
  • Measure context. The unique value of a perception survey compared to automated data collection is the ability to gather information on how events came about and their context. This can be challenging since some individuals may report more than one victimization or experience and asking about each incident can be time consuming. One workaround is to ask participants to answer follow‐up questions based on choosing the most serious or most recent incident. If asking about, say, a case of verbal abuse by a customer, store associates could provide circumstances or answer about the last time that happened.
  • Measure knowledge of policies and awareness of resources. Research shows that people are not always good at estimating or understanding what they know about a topic and that people often think they know much more or much less than they do. As such, questions that directly assess employees’ knowledge are better than asking them whether or not they know something.
  • Ensure representativeness. For data to be useful for broad decision making, the sample of participants who provide information in the survey needs to closely resemble the wider employee population. A plan should be made to draw groups of participants from across key categories, such as gender, shift, location, and so on.

Sometimes audits and data may indicate that security is adequate, but if employee perception of risk is greater than actual risk, you still have a security problem. It suggests you are failing to make employees feel as safe as they are—and making employees feel secure is certainly one goal of security.

Climate surveys can also give a security department insight into the attitude of employees toward security in general. This is important for indications of whether security violations committed by staff might be the result of security procedures or policies that conflict with workflow.

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