British Gas in Dispute Over Employee Disengagement

Last Updated Mar 11, 2010 7:26 PM EST

British Gas has become embroiled in a labour dispute which serves as perfect example of how employee disengagement can expose your business.

The GMB union sent out a questionnaire to 9,000 members working at BG about working conditions and got 3,000 responses back, with the majority voicing serious complaints about the management regime.

Much of the complaint is around skilled engineers feeling overworked and made to up-sell to customers while they are working in their homes.

BG workers said in the survey that they were being micromanaged and subjected to a draconian disciplinary regime over the slightest infringements.

A spokesman at GMB said many responses mentioned threats of being put on disciplinary review for the next 12 months if engineers missed performance targets for the first time.

The real pity of the situation appears to be that many of the respondents to the survey said the company was a great place to work in the past, heightening the levels of dissatisfaction now the regime has changed. As one respondent put it:

  • "I used to love working for British Gas, but I haven't felt like that for a long time. They don't value an engineer who can repair a boiler, although they value an engineer who can sell a boiler. Now, it's all profit and no customer service".
BG drafted a response to the statements made by GMB's members at the company, who are so disengaged, the union is due to ballot for strike action in protest at their treatment. The response, however, doesn't mention the management regime, only the accusation of impending job cuts.

However, in the interests of balance, here's the statement:

"We are extremely disappointed that yet again the GMB is repeating accusations about job cuts at British Gas, which are simply untrue. They continue to quote from an e-mail from June last year relating to reductions in headquarter costs which were announced last August.

"Claims of 5,000 job cuts are frankly ridiculous. These scare stories seem purely designed to stir up discontent in a successful British company, which is growing customers and creating jobs - including 1,100 new roles for insulation technicians in British Gas' new insulation business, which we announced last month. This is in addition to the 2,600 jobs we recently announced in our smart metering division. It is notable that these new jobs have received no welcome from the GMB.

"Whilst we wrote some time ago, we have still not heard from the GMB as to what specific trade dispute they plan to strike over.

"We have in place robust contingency plans to ensure that, in the event of any industrial action, our service to customers is unaffected."

Whether or not BG employees have a justifiable complaint, what is clear is there is a very high level of dissatisfaction among them. The GMB spokesman said he'd never had such a big response back from a survey before.

On top of that, a surprising amount felt driven to offer their own comments on top of their responses, many of which are in public domain.

What is apparent is these employees feel the pride in their jobs is being eroded. If it becomes too obvious, it's BG's reputation with customers that could suffer.

Instead of making sure its most important customer touchpoint (engineers in customers' homes) gives off a positive view of the company, the business runs the risk that they'll complain or under-work and leave the customer with the wrong impression. This statement from one survey respondent is extemely telling:

  • "I feel we are now putting our customers in danger. The engineers are put under great pressure day-in, day-out. There's not enough time to complete jobs and corners are being cut. It's the customer that doesn't get the service. Our jobs are not safe. All this will result in someone getting hurt or worse".
Getting your staff to deliver good customer service is very much about them feeling comfortable and happy to work for you. If they are not, it's bound to show up in the way they deal with your customers.

BG recently put in glowing company figures. If the sentiments reflected in GMB's survey represent the general view among this key section of its front-line employees, it will be interesting to see whether customers start drifting away as a result.