Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and in the public domain.
Editor’s Note: In today’s Material Handling Feature, one of our regular feature writers takes a look at the challenges of managing low-wage workers. The opinions expressed in this Opinion article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of those of Bahrns or any of its subsidiaries.
Running a business that employs low- or minimum-wage workers can be challenging. They are often unskilled, undereducated and unmotivated to do a good job.
Many retail managers are familiar with the challenges of working with a staff that seems as if it doesn’t want to do a good job, doesn’t care about the business, and isn’t all that afraid of being fired.
In these types of situations, turnover is high, customer complaints are frequent, and day-to-day management of the business can be a real headache.
OSHA Violations at Delaware Store
Unfortunately for the business owner, the results can be disastrous. Consider the case of Dollar General, the discount chain that has more than 12,000 stores in 43 states and employs thousands of workers, most of them low-wage.
Recently the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $122,100 for violations inspectors discovered one of Dollar General’s stores in Bear, Delaware. Boxes and excess merchandise were found blocking emergency exits, a violation of federal law.
It’s not the first time Dollar General has run into trouble with OSHA. In fact, it might seem as if the chain is one of the federal agency’s favorite — and easiest — targets, given that it has been cited more than 40 times since 2009, frequently for blocked emergency exits and electrical panels, and improperly maintained fire extinguishers.
While it’s now known in this specific instance if low-wage employees were responsible for leaving the boxes in front of the emergency exits — typically in cases like this nobody volunteers to take the blame — the issue isn’t just the safety violations.
Uncaring Workers, Poor Supervision
These type of dumb mistakes can be indicative of a workforce that just doesn’t care, lack of structure and training, and supervisors who are doing a poor job of controlling their operations.
And while these types of violations are potentially dangerous, it’s hard to blame the supervisors and managers of these types of low-wage retail businesses, especially since many of them are often hourly employees themselves. In many instances, it comes down to an issue of motivation.
So how do you motivate workers who have very little financial incentive to do a good job?
More Money, More Problems
Paying them more money isn’t necessarily the answer. The federal minimum wage currently is $7.25/hour, but President Obama has proposed increasing it to $9. In Chicago, the minimum wage has been risen to $10/hour and the city council has passed an ordinance that will increase it to $13/hour by 2019.
That may give low-wage workers more buying power — or not, depending on inflation and the cost of living in an expensive city like Chicago — but it doesn’t do anything to pull them up from the lowest economic class.
What low-wage employees really want — and all workers, for that matter — is to feel appreciated as a valued part of the organization. If you can find ways to do that, you often don’t always need to offer workers a higher wage.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Often, the type of surly and uncaring low-wage workers you frequently encounter working the cash registers at fast food restaurants, movie theaters, and other retail operations are simply playing their scripted part in the drama written by our society. Managers and business owners expect people holding these entry-level jobs to be stupid, unmotivated and disconnected from the business’s core values, so that’s exactly how they behave.
But by changing employers’ attitudes towards the low-wage workers who their business depends on — in other words, by changing the culture of the business so that all workers are appreciated, recognized and rewarded for a job well done — it’s possible to change the attitudes of the front line employees.
Very few people go to work wanting to do a bad job. But if that’s the expectation of them once they arrive there, usually they will respond in kind. Bad attitudes are contagious, so one or two workers grumbling about the way they are being treated can often have a landslide effect within a business culture.
A Different Approach
Not every business that employs low-wage workers faces this problem. Consider the Mexican-themed fast food chain Chipotle.
If you have every been to a Chipotle restaurant, you probably were greeted by smiling, enthusiastic workers who took your order and prepared your food efficiently, usually while chatting with you in a friendly manner.
So what’s the difference between Chipotle and other business that employ low-wage workers who aren’t friendly, motivated or efficient?
Companies like Chipotle spend a lot of time and energy nurturing a culture in which workers are valued, appreciated and recognized.
Training, Motivation, and Reinforcement
The company’s expectations are clearly defined for workers during training. Customer interactions are scripted and supervisors observe and coach workers to meet the company’s standards. Daily pre-shift meetings are held in which the company’s goals are reinforced and workers who exceed them are celebrated.
Perhaps most importantly, managers are promoted from the inside, so there both a financial and a status incentive to do a good job.
Retail, fast food, and other businesses often can’t afford to pay workers more than the minimum wage. The profit margins are simply too low.
But that doesn’t mean that they have to settle for having an unmotivated and disconnected workforce. Comprehensive training, engaged supervisors who genuinely care about the success of both the business and its workers, and a culture in which all workers are appreciated and celebrated can turn around the attitudes of low-wage workers and motivate them to strive for both individual excellence and the achievement of the business’s goals.