Retailers risk alienating employees in rush to unmask

Many consumers were elated about the CDC relaxing mask guidelines; many frontline employees were not. Pleasing both groups is proving difficult for retail brands.

Employees may be more reluctant to un-mask than consumers. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Employees may be more reluctant to un-mask than consumers. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Starbucks, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, CVS, Target, Home Depot, Kroger. They are among the big retailers that have recently updated their mask policy in the U.S. to permit fully vaccinated customers to shop in-store sans face covering. 

The change comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines on May 13 stating that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting.”

But it’s not that simple. In announcing the long-awaited easing of the year-long rules, the CDC said the guidance could be superseded by “federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” 

In other words, the decision is up to individual companies. No doubt surprised by the CDC’s move, brands like JCPenney issued statements indicating they are mulling it, while McDonald’s reportedly discussed options with the Mayo Clinic, which has been giving advice to the fast-food giant since July.  

Other retailers, like Ikea and Rite Aid, have simply said their policies have not changed.

Yet others were quick to adopt the CDC guidance, as many public affairs professionals consider it best practice to follow the federal agency’s lead.  

Trader Joe’s was one of the first brands, the day after the CDC’s announcement, to drop mask requirements for fully vaccinated customers. Others took longer to follow suit. Kroger only updated its mask policy on May 19, while Dollar General and Best Buy did so the day before. Giant Eagle, which indicated in a statement last week that it would maintain mask requirements for all, reversed course on May 18. 

PRWeek reached out to a dozen in-house teams. Most declined to speak or couldn’t be reached about their decision-making process. 

Shoppers eager, employees concerned
Brands that are embracing the mask-free guidance may be at risk of alienating one group of stakeholders while pleasing another, experts say. 

Many consumers are no doubt happy to return to some pre-pandemic normalcy, or at least to have the option to do so. But when it comes to employees, “the CDC’s latest guidelines have unintentionally put some pressure on businesses to provide guidance to an employee base that has myriad concerns,” says Craig Millon, chief client officer at Jack Morton. “Many still don’t feel safe. That is, in many ways, the greatest concern and pressure that the lifting of the mask guidelines has passed on to businesses.”

United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents 1.3 million food and retail workers at brands like CVS, Kroger and Macy’s, has gone on the offensive in response to brands who have followed the CDC and lifted mask regulations. 

“America’s grocery workers are still facing daily COVID risks,” said UFCW president Marc Perrone in a statement noting most Americans have not been fully vaccinated. 

“These essential frontline workers have been forced to play mask police throughout the pandemic with many shoppers not following COVID safety standards,” he said. “Now, they are being asked to be the vaccination police.” 

Local media coverage has also recently featured stories with employees worried about the new mask policy. After the goodwill they’ve built up in protecting their most important stakeholders, pros urge retailers to trade carefully and with clarity in addressing the issue with employees, not just customers. 

“We’ve seen leaders and organizations do a great job of listening regularly and keeping a pulse on employee sentiment. The same should be true of this next phase,” says Kate Bullinger, CEO of United Minds, Weber Shandwick’s management consultancy. “Companies must continue monitoring the situation and the science, and take employee perspective into account when considering safety precautions such as masking.”

Abby Lovett, SVP and MD of retail at Ketchum, adds that “frontline talent drives an outsized part of the retail experience, so it is wise for brands to understand how their employees are feeling.” According to the Omnicom Group firm’s New Essentials study data from March, 95% of employees in the retail industry say COVID-19 has made feeling safe at work important to them. 

However, only half of retail employees say they have become resilient because of the pandemic. Compare that to the rest of employed Americans, at 62%, and that’s a worrying difference. 

“It is important that brands recognize that retail employees are feeling less resilient,” says Lovett. “Communicating any benefits that the company offers in supporting employees is key, as well as ensuring safe spaces that will allow employees to express concerns and issues will make their employees feel valued, heard and appreciated –  hopefully, helping to build their resiliency.” 

Andrea Myers, SVP in FleishmanHillard’s Talent & Transformation practice and a member of the firm’s U.S. COVID-19 task force, stresses that retail brands need to look at solutions for addressing the emotional state of their employees. 

“Employees are experiencing a variety of feelings right now, ranging from concern to relief, uncertainty to excitement, and everything in between,” she says. “Some employees may not feel comfortable working in the retail environment if customers aren’t masked. Brands should plan to address this, perhaps by moving concerned employees to non-customer facing roles.” 

Myers contends that brands need to address the issue of policing and customer compliance head on.  

“It’s a very real concern that non-vaccinated customers will go maskless where they’re not required to show proof,” she says. “They need to define the employees’ role in policing customers’ adherence to the new policy. In some settings, brands may choose to require proof of vaccination, so employees need to clearly understand the role they play in ensuring compliance.”  

In sharing policy changes, a few experts applaud the tone taken by Dollar General. The variety-store chain titled its announcement, “Dollar General continues COVID-19 proactive and preventative measures,” rather than something more celebratory about the mask change. 

While noting fully vaccinated employees, customers and vendors can now go without a facial covering, Dollar General also highlighted its ranking as a top 20 corporate responder to the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination support, ways it is supporting employees and ongoing health and safety measures. The chain also produced an infographic around “serving others” in the pandemic.  

BCW has been supporting Dollar General on the issue.

A new divide
Matt Kucharski, president of Padilla, says retail brands have to prepare for an enduring and growing divide while coming out of public health measures. 

“A year ago, this pandemic was a great convener: we were all in this together, because we didn’t even know what this was,” he says. “But we’ve seen over the past several months that togetherness has drifted and it will continue to diffuse into varying opinions on everything from vaccinations to masks.” 

“Every decision a brand makes now is going to be amenable to some and disappointing for others,” he adds “The goal is not to find a solution that everyone is going to like, but find solutions that people are going to accept, and then communicate it with clarity and candor.”

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