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Now is the time for businesses to show a 'we understand'​ generosity of spirit

Updated: May 20, 2020

Wilko cuts sick pay entitlement for every member of staff
Wilko cuts sick pay entitlement for every member of staff

Last week, high street retailer Wilko announced it is to cut sick pay entitlement for every member of staff in stores and distribution centres. There will be no company sick pay after the first occasion of sickness. And if you have been with the company for less than a year you'll be entitled to nothing at all.

How did anyone making this decision, just as Coronavirus starts to bite, not think it would bite them back? Because a quick glance at the national press or social media shows the start of a not unsurprising backlash.

The fact that Wilko claim their existing policy is actually better than many other retailers, and that this is more a case of falling (sic) in line with industry standards, counts for nothing. It looks like what it (probably) is: a cynical act of business expediency and cost cuting at the expense of their staff slipped under the radar in a bad news cycle.

Aside from the negative impact it will have on the already precarious position of the low paid, frontline staff who make their business happen, what about the response of their customers? A significant proportion will be in a similar economic situation, and will feel the pain by association. Plus, as many tweets have said, how can you know Wilko employees aren't unwell if they have to work to eat? So better to shop elsewhere.

The fact that both these concerns will be true of staff at most big retailers is irrelevant. At a time of heightened awareness and concern, Wilko have gone out of their way to make this something associated with their stores. And when people are attuned to something they will always notice.

It begs a question: even if a 'business necessity' (not something I would subscribe to), why not hold back for 6 months rather than kick people when they're down? It just looks opportunistic in a bad way.

Or (and please excuse my naivety) perhaps go one step further and actually embrace the current position, seeing it as an opportunity not a cost. As a response by Wilko to the coverage said:

"we have been a family friendly company for 90 years and we remain so...(with) a generous company sick pay policy which is over and above the market"

So rather than compromise it, why not publicise and celebrate this 'generosity', as a defining and differentiating part of the Wilko proposition.

At a time when life seems more challenging than ever for many who are already feeling marginalised, there is potentially much to be gained for a high street retailer (or local manufacturer) to show some empathy by walking in the shoes of both staff and customers: adopting a position that says 'we understand...we're on your side'.

Which seems to fit very well with Wilko's stated values on their website (go figure!):

"As a family owned business, we exist to free up hard working families to be the best they can be. We know what it takes to keep a busy home running smoothly. We get what it means to make the most of family life. And we understand the things that really matter"

Alternatively, cut sick pay for hard working families at a time when they need it most and see how much understanding of keeping a busy home running that demonstrates.

If a point of comparison is needed, just look at Greggs. Already active in local communities and seen as a champion of the high street, they have just announced they will continue to pay workers hit by coronavirus. I have no idea about their wider employment policies. And yes they include a caveat around how serious things get. But it's still an important and compelling statement of intent, that leaves me liking Greggs more and inclined to pay them a visit for my next pasty.

There's maybe something here for all of us to learn at this time. Wilko in particular.

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