READ TIME: 5 minutes.

Enough! Front-line service workers have long-faced chronically low wages, undesirable work hours, and limited benefits. The pandemic only added to the pain, with high-stakes health risks, increased layoffs, and now, record numbers of unruly airline passengers, temper tantrums from anti-mask shoppers, and attacks on food delivery workers. In the face of such pervasive lack of respect, is it any wonder that front-line service workers are seeking new job opportunities?

During this year of the Big Quit, accommodation and food service employees made up the largest surge of “quitters” in the most recent quarter (April through June 2021). The next largest group was (no surprise) the retail, health care, and social assistance sectors.

Employers who are left struggling to hire and retain service workers are asking themselves what to do differently. Wages? Hours? Benefits? Yes, all those factors are on the table. Really making a difference, though, may come down to respect. Here’s how (and why) to build a culture of respect for your service workers.


Discover the history of consumer “privilege” and disrespect for service workers

It’s easy to believe that the pandemic, tense social climate, and political conflict of this time is responsible for rampant disrespect of service workers. But the first department stores of one hundred years ago were built on a platform where “the customer is always right” and customers were “guests” to be served by the store workers, creating instant disparity between the roles.

In an interview with The Atlantic, consumer psychologist Nancy Wong explained that service jobs of the past 50 years emerged as “a new industrial workforce.”

“For many of these workers, the difficulty of finding non-service employment enables companies to pay low wages and keep their prices artificially low, which consumers generally like as long as they don’t have to think about what makes it possible. In theory, these conditions are supposed to encourage better performance on the part of the worker; in practice, they also encourage cruelty on the part of the consumer,” she concluded.

Sadly, the roots of bad consumer behavior come from a history of putting consumers into positions of “privilege,” creating arbitrary distinction that fuels disrespect. Conditions are bigger than any one company or industry.


Choose to be Different. Build a Respect-First Culture

Especially if you are in an industry that has chronic symptoms of disrespect for service workers (hospitality, retail, restaurants), it’s important to be aware of the realities of the industry. In what ways does your market encourage supporting service workers? What norms thwart their success?

If there’s anything that 2020 taught us all, it’s that we can all choose to pivot – to do things differently – in business.

Once you take a good look into the “industry mirror,” choose to do some things differently. Are you paying higher wages than the industry average? Offering better benefits? Investing in employee development? Creating career paths for workers? Celebrating employee contributions with recognition and bonuses? Do you have a company manifesto centered on respect and inclusivity?

Create and claim company policies and practices that show respect for employees. Then, lead with this Respect-First stance in all you do.


Prioritize the Importance of Respect in the Workplace

Policies are a good start. Your truth will emerge when those policies are tested. Do your actions prioritize the importance of respect in the workplace?

Remember, the health concerns and turbulence of the pandemic created a “last straw” scenario for workers who may have felt stuck in their jobs for years. Or the pandemic may have been an “awakening” that shined a spotlight on the realities of service jobs – and the options for different work or environments that were more appealing. Policies, words, and claims are no longer enough.

Plan now for when customers cross the respect line. What should your front-line workers do? Who has their back?

This summer, Southwest, United and American Airlines announced they were limiting or delaying the return of alcoholic beverage services on flights. The Transportation Security Administration has also restarted self-defense courses for flight attendants.

Some food delivery cyclists in New York City have found safety in numbers, with the creation of informal groups such as  El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana, or “The Deliveryboys in the Big Apple Daily.” The Deliveryboys organize cyclists making deliveries into tough neighborhoods, so no one is cycling alone. They are nearby when attacks do occur, providing emotional and practical support.

In July, a Massachusetts restaurant announced on Facebook that it was closing for a “day of kindness” following patron behavior that “is an unacceptable way to treat any human.”

Respect can start with how you treat your employees. Unfortunately, for employees to feel respected and be safe, employers now need to actively, immediately, and decisively confront disrespectful behavior from customers and others who might threaten the safety and well-being of your workforce.


Hire for skills and aptitude (not education)

Once you have your policies and practices in place to create and maintain a culture of respect, take a step back and look at your recruitment practices. Are you missing out on potential talent because of arbitrary barriers?

Too many companies have jumped on the applicant tracking system bandwagon as a way to efficiently screen job applicants and focus (only) on those with the best match of education and experience. The problem is, many job descriptions tag as “required” some skills and education that really aren’t necessary for the job. According to a recently published study from the Harvard Business School, 88% of employers say that “qualified high-skills candidates are vetted out of the process because they do not match the exact criteria established by the job description.”

To find skilled talent for your open service worker positions, be sure your job description, applicant tracking system, and skills assessments are all refreshed to prioritize skills and competencies over education and experience.


Develop and take good care of your front-line service workers

“I would argue … that service workers are now even more important than software engineers. Without a strong service organization and a sound set of practices to hire, care for, and support service teams, your company will never grow.”
– Josh Bersin

In this thought piece, Josh Bersin makes a bold claim that “service workers are now more important than software engineers.” He points out that software engineering jobs are desired, well-compensated, and largely respected across industries. Yet it’s not technologies that bind customers to companies; it’s that personal, human touch of front-line service workers. And without them, your company will not grow.

We think he’s onto something important. Now is the time to take good care of your front-line workers. That means more than compensating them fairly and keeping them safe on the job. It’s time to elevate the position of service workers across industries.

Have you noticed that we’ve been saying “service workers” and not “service careers?” That’s one problem. What would your company look like if you offered service careers? Where entry-level people with great skills are hired, compensated, and rewarded for great work? Where your development plans support those folks to take on higher-level roles, with apprenticeships, training and support to become leaders? Imagine a succession plan that promotes from within.

The model has worked well for white-collar career workers for decades. It’s time to give service workers the respect and opportunities they deserve. It’s time for service workers to thrive. Chances are, your organization will, too!


Focused on hiring and developing service workers in an environment of respect? This Competency Management Toolkit can help you understand how competency management can help build and reward the skills and competencies they (and you) need to succeed. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ can help!



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