Asda has made the headlines… for alleging considering stopping free tea and toast for their employees.
Not only did it make the HR press, but the mainstream news media have now picked up on it too.
Now I don’t know much about Asda and why they have made their decision. I am sure that someone has done some very careful calculations about how much this benefit costs to provide and its perceived value. As the company are also making redundancies, this proposal on one hand makes perfect sense. Cut unnecessary costs rather than cutting jobs, always.
Here is what I do know. Taking something away from employees, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is usually bitterly resented and the loss felt for much longer than you would expect. Sometimes, these things become myths and legends. Many years ago, I worked for a family owned firm. Every Christmas, employees had the benefit of a ‘free’ Christmas shopping afternoon and would receive in the post a voucher from Marks and Spencer to the value of £10. A somewhat challenging economic situation one particular year had led to the company stopping these small benefits, along with the traditional Christmas eve office buffet. I’d joined some years later, but it wasn’t unusual to hear ‘do you remember when we used to have a lovely lunch at Christmas….’. A few crisps and sausage rolls and a warm glass of Bucks Fizz had turned into a long missed feast with the passing of time.
Here’s the thing; we don’t like losing something that we have previously enjoyed.
Loss aversion theory tells us that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains – and some studies suggest that losses can be twice as powerful psychologically as gains. So applied to work, take a perceived employee benefit away and it will be felt more keenly than providing something new and shiny. At Asda, there will probably people who are most upset about the possible future lack of toast that don’t even eat it. Years from now, employees will still be remembering it fondly. It will be spoken of in hushed tones to new starters and mentioned in the employee engagement survey. You can be sure it will be the talk of the water cooler.
Because we human beings aren’t all that rational. Because we often focus on, and also hugely value, the little things. Because maybe Maslow had it right all along. We have to meet our basic physiological needs before anything else, and that starts with food and water. Or maybe in this case, tea and toast.