19 December 2019

A striking lesson learnt: engaging employees avoids issues down the line

If you've seen the news recently, you may have heard that Argos customers are facing delays in receiving Christmas orders this year due to ongoing strikes at a UPS distribution centre.

UPS staff are striking 16th-31st of December over disputes about pay, unless an eleventh hour deal is reached. One of its key retailers, Argos, are facing severe disruption in service at the busiest time of the year. This has got us thinking at Synergy: is this really a salary issue? Or is it a fundamental lack of engagement that has led to the strikes? Let’s take a look…


Escalation takes time

If reports of UPS employees being ‘treated with contempt‘ are true, this treatment has had time to build momentum, and subsequently landed UPS and Argos in trouble during a crucial time of the year for sales. 

So, what could UPS have done differently when people started to feel unhappy? 
  • Immediately explored and responded to employee concerns as soon as they arose
  • Made decisions based on employee needs, using empathy, employee insight and audience segmentation
  • Used issue comms planning to communicate regularly with employees, making comms relevant and transparent 
  • Taken direct action and reviewed the salary of those affected, making changes where appropriate in a timely manner
  • Recognised that the issue may have been a symptom of poor colleague engagement, and put measures in place to improve that. Wellbeing strategies, robust feedback mechanisms and other activities could be used to engage and retain people

There will always be company messages that employees don’t like, but given thoughtful planning, consideration and swift action, these can be handled sensitively. 


If you don’t give employees a voice, they’ll find one 

This example demonstrates what a lack of solid internal communications and engagement can lead to. People don’t arrive at the bold decision to strike overnight. It’s a huge risk, it’s disruptive and would have been a stressful thing to consider at Christmas time when people have families to think about. This would have been brewing for a while and employees had probably voiced their concerns to leaders in the run up to it. 

Perhaps there was no feedback mechanism for them to use, or maybe there was but they were receiving no meaningful response. People want to feel valued and part of that is two-way, authentic dialogue with leadership. 

Or maybe it was a wellbeing issue that was left unaddressed. If people felt as though the company wasn’t looking out for mental, physical and financial health, it might go some way in explaining why people felt that striking was their only option. 

Whatever the cause, people will find a way to voice their views. Whether it’s to family and friends, on social media, to a union or on Glassdoor. 


Engagement is worth more than salary

In and outside of business, hard messages are easier to swallow if they are accompanied by an explanation, an apology and an admission of less-than-ideal circumstances. There is immense power is this kind of vulnerability, especially when delivered by the right person. 

When people are kept in the dark things can become messy and it can be damaging to the brand, particularly if employees hear the news from the media, rather than first hand. Honda and Ryanair both approached redundancy poorly and the results were damning. 

A study conducted by Deloitte suggests that the issues of ‘retention and engagement’ have risen to number two in the minds of business leaders, second only to the challenge of building global leadership. They said: 

“The employee-work contract has changed: People are operating more like free agents than in the past. In short, the balance of power has shifted from employer to employee, forcing business leaders to learn how to build an organization that engages employees as sensitive, passionate, creative contributors. We call this a shift from improving employee engagement to a focus on building an irresistible organization.”

What we can learn from this is that salary isn’t always what people value most. Purpose, meaning and recognition rank higher in a lot of cases and when people enjoy their work, their salary can become a lower priority.

It’s also a good lesson in addressing issues early – if your people aren’t happy and engaged, tackle that as soon as it arises, make people feel heard and show that you value their opinions. These small steps can prevent big organisational disruption down the line. 


We’re helping some of our clients deal with tricky subjects such as change, redundancy and issue comms. If you’d like some advice, get in touch and we’ll help you through. 

And if you need some tips on how to engage your employees effectively in 2020, take a look at our top 10 here. 

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