Companies worldwide are facing unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, from modifying operations to keeping employees safe and informed. But not all businesses have followed the recommended safety protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This mixed messaging could have a significant impact on employee trust, loyalty and overall commitment, according to a study led by the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and Missouri State University's Hospitality Leadership Department.
The survey of 240 food, beverage and lodging employees examined the role emotions play in developing organizational trust amid a crisis. The results show mangers whose communications followed CDC guidelines made employees feel grateful, where communications that ignored CDC recommendations enhanced fear and anger toward the organization. The results are published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.
"If I feel angry toward you, I'm not going to trust you. And if I don't trust you, I'm not going to be committed to you. I may want to work somewhere else," said study co-author Juan Madera, UH professor. "Employees are more grateful when their employer tells them to do the obvious, which is what scientists are telling them to do. Wear a mask, wash your hands and social distance. Social norms dictate that there's safety in numbers."
As the pandemic emerged and worsened last spring, some companies faced a backlash for putting the health of their workers at risk. A lawsuit against an Iowa food processing plant accused the company of endangering employees by downplaying virus concerns and ordering employees - many of whom eventually tested positive, with some deaths reported - to come to work. One manager referred to the virus as a "glorified flu" that "everyone is going to get," according to the lawsuit.
"After seeing some companies making the headlines for not following the CDC and international health safety guidelines, we started to discuss the emotional consequences for employees and how that in turn would affect the company. That's where we found inspiration for this study," said lead author Renata Guzzo, a former UH PhD student and lecturer and now an assistant professor at Missouri State University. Other authors are Xingyu Wang, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and JéAnna Abbott from UH.
E-commerce giant Amazon made headlines when warehouse employees spoke out about working conditions, accusing the company of not taking sufficient precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. Some restaurants and bars, especially early in the outbreak, ignored CDC health and safety guidelines, such as not requiring masks or social distancing.
Those and similar actions can have profound long-term negative consequences, not only for employees but also for the organization itself, according to the researchers.
"The stakes are very high. Workers can get sick or develop severe mental health issues while the companies have to deal with loss of production from sick leave and a bad reputation. Accurate and consistent messaging can mitigate some of those risks," said Madera. "How employees are treated today will affect how they feel about the organization years from now, long after the pandemic is over."
While this study focused on hospitality employees amid a pandemic, the researchers say the findings have implications for a variety of crises, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Each event can disrupt services, close businesses and change the productions of service, creating a crisis for organizations.
"During crises, and especially during a global crisis such as the COVID-19, establishing and maintaining trust among employees in times of crisis is critical to the survival and success for hospitality organizations," the researchers wrote.