What if your jaded cashier suddenly became a local hero?

Human Resources COVID-19

3 lessons HR professionals can learn from COVID-19

I have been visiting my local supermarket on a very regular basis for over 20 years now. Every time my HR heart bleeds. The cashiers look jaded, there is often a lot of fuss at the checkout, and the shop manager comes running at the slightest problem. He then manages to either completely ignore the cashiers or just tell them off.

Since a couple of weeks, the situation has changed drastically. All of a sudden, the cashiers are very outgoing and there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Why? Quite simply, because of the coronavirus crisis, some basic HR principles have been rejuvenated. And it is contagious, not only for the employees, but for the customers and the manager as well.

Blog_PDP_3 Corona lessons for HR_blog
1. Attention is key

Since the Hawthorne experiments (1924-1933), we know that ‘giving attention' is one such basic principle. Today, we are throwing around compliments and clapping for everyone. Shoppers at my supermarket enthusiastically thank the cashier. The shop manager too, chips in. He steps out of his comfort zone, tackles unusual problems together with his employees and helps out where necessary. Years of HR neglect are thus straightened out in no time.

You can tell a neglected organization by the behavior of its employees and leaders: there is a lot of management but little or no leadership. The manager does not dare to enter into a dialog and to set limits. Neither does he or she dare to ask how someone is doing. He or she simply avoids employees and lets everyone have their own way. And if things are getting out of hand, the manager overcorrects and turns to authoritarian leadership behavior. Employees thus feel psychologically unsafe. They start to play it safe, avoid their manager and go their own way. Social distancing avant la lettre, so to speak.

2. Dialog is based on partnership

If you want to be a good employer in times of crisis, neglect is out of the question. A mature dialog and mutual trust are more crucial than ever. Too often in people management we see a parent-child relationship instead of a full-grown partnership. This was also the case in my local supermarket for a long time. To this day I still vividly remember the following conversation from the pre-corona era:

After a day's work, the shop assistant, who had been at the supermarket for many years, respectfully said goodbye to her boss. She quickly briefed him about what still needed to be done, wished him a pleasant evening and added: “As you know, I bought some kiwis and some other stuff”. She showed him her shopping bag, her boss closely inspected the bag and asked to see the receipt. Apparently, this kind of inspection was normal at my supermarket. At that moment, the daily interaction turned into an authoritarian parent-child relationship and ditto conversation from which all maturity and mutual trust were drained, as it were.

3. Everything starts with meaningfulness

Nowadays, retail workers are held in high regard by society. All of a sudden, their second-hand image is discarded, and it is now crystal clear that their job is absolutely meaningful. This feeling is crucial for job satisfaction. Research of our expertise center shows that approximately 13 percent of our respondents–regardless of their industry–feel they are doing “bullshit jobs”. Bullshit jobs, as our survey shows, are mainly associated with jobs that are stifling talent. Likewise, job environments that leave little or no room for participation or that hardly pay any attention to connecting and appreciation, also increase the chance of meaningless work.


The current exceptional circumstances challenge our labor relations. For employees and managers alike, daily habits and routines are severely put to the test. They are amazed at what they themselves and the others can do. There are a few particularly important HR lessons to be learned from the coronavirus case of the jaded cashier: pay attention to your employees, now more than ever, so that they feel safe, both physically and psychologically. Invest in sustainable dialog. This crisis will not benefit from one-sided management or one-sided employee perspective. Both are important. Above all, this crisis confronts us with a basic question: when are jobs meaningful? And what influences this perception of meaningfulness? Regularly reflecting on this (together) and entering into dialog is more than ever at the heart of a sustainable HR policy.

Want to know more?

Do you have examples of how labour relations have changed in these exceptional circumstances or how you pay attention to this in your company? Or do you still have questions? Let us know via peggy.deprins@ams.ac.be.

Would you like to read more?

De Lange, W., De Prins, P., Van der Heijden, B. (red.) (2019). Canon van HRM. 50 theorieën over een vakgebied in ontwikkeling. Alphen aan den Rijn: Vakmedianet.
De Prins, P. (2018). De Clash voorbij. Zeven bouwstenen voor sociale dialoog. Leuven: Acco.