The Wider Living Wage Debate

By David Mundell, Managing Director

There won’t be many in the service industry who don’t feel some trepidation about the Living Wage coming into affect in April of this year. The legislation has significant cost ramifications both to ourselves and to our clients, and while most of us pride ourselves on being decent and fair employers, there are many of us who believe an employer’s responsibility goes further than an ‘arbitrary’ hourly rate. There are many of us, also, who believe the discussion over reward and remuneration is already too narrow.

Obviously we understand what our security officers take home at the end of the month is vital, and a large part of what drives their employment decision. We also understand that there needs to be employment legislation in place to protect employees against poor behaviours from unscrupulous employees. But reward and remuneration is not a conversation that starts and ends with the Living Wage, Minimum Wage, or any derivation thereof. It must also consider the wider picture, including employee well-being and job satisfaction.

The removal of autonomy

From April 1st of this year, anyone above 25 years old and not in the first year of an apprenticeship will be paid at least £7.20 an hour, and the Government has said it will increase this figure every year. So far so good, but is it really in the best interests of the employee? If the increasing costs cannot be met in terms of increased client fees, then costs that have to be absorbed will ultimately impact other employee benefits that may be on offer.

Good security companies understand that in order to attract and crucially retain the best officers, they need to offer competitive employment packages. The best companies even see the employee package as something that gives them a point of difference, which not only helps their officers but also helps in tendering for new contracts. They understand the importance of career progression, rewarding high achievement, encouraging hobbies, interests, personal development and community engagement. They understand too the importance of encouraging a fit and healthy lifestyle, and supporting an employee’s medical well being.

The investment in designing, developing and issuing schemes such as these is considerable. That these budgets may be further stretched is a concern worth discussing, as it could, in fact, be counter productive to employee satisfaction.

The Living Wage also threatens to limit what an employer may offer with respect to bonuses for performances that go ‘above-and-beyond’. At the most extreme, it may act as a glass ceiling for promotions through which only a limited number of officers can burst through. It may similarly limit what is available in terms of rewards for loyalty and length of service.

Competition at an all time high

Unemployment in the UK is currently at a ten-year low, having fallen by another 60,000 between October and December of 2015*. While obviously this is good news for the country, it also means there is fierce competition to attract the best employees, and once employed, to keep them from being poached by competitors.

With the Living Wage coming into effect in this climate, for an employer to be competitive will become harder if a good benefits package is harder to afford or justify.

Training – encouraging career progression

Of all the employee benefits and investment that happens outside of an hourly wage, training is arguably the most important to our employees, our clients, and to our industry overall.

Training is no longer just an introduction to a new job, but can and should be a pursuit for long-serving practitioners seeking to elevate their professional status. Training strategies should be strongly linked to an occupational skills pathway, where employees of all levels can see where they are on the pathway, and what training is available to help develop their existing roles. This creates longer-term engagement, which supports talent identification and succession planning. As an employer, it’s about more than attracting job seekers, but rather staff retention and indeed creating stronger cultures.

For our clients, there are a minority who don’t see the value in training, because they view it in the same way as they view security guarding in general, as a grudge purchase. Those who do see the value, see security officers taking pride in their roles, their knowledge and experience, and a will and ability to support a client’s specific brand values.

Axis now has a waiting list for its in-house qualifications, a positive sign that education is not only needed but wanted, and that a clear and robust training vision is essential.

For our industry overall, training is part of a wider desire to increase professionalism within the sector, and detach ourselves from the assumption and stereotype that the profession is one of failed policemen or the uneducated. Put in this light it is hard to argue that it’s an investment we can afford to scale down.

Rewards and Awards

The results of good training are there for all to see. A case in point is Jameel Jobey, an Axis Security officer who won the ACS Pacesetters Security Officer of Distinction Award last year, because he was recognised by his peers, supervisors and by the judges as having gone the extra mile in customer service and as having excelled in all aspects of his role. Some of Jameel’s success was undoubtedly down to his high level of training that meant he was fully equipped to deal with any situation, however challenging.

The ACS Pacesetters are of course external rewards, but it is also important to create internal awards to recognise those who have given a meritorious service to the industry and our company. To this end, for example, Axis Security has annual and monthly awards in place that reward employees and teams for their work ethic, customer service skills and thorough commitment to all aspects of their job.

Awards and similar schemes are an investment that companies make to show the genuine pride they have for the commitment of their individuals and teams. It also helps to show those new to a company what can be achieved, and helps those in supervisory positions to better train and engage their teams. It’s a part of an employee benefits package that can’t be compromised if we are to retain the culture of which we are proud.

Corporate Social Responsibility

A focus on the Living Wage may also impact a company’s support of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives – initiatives that engage our employees with our industry and local communities, and help to further personal development, as well as raising money for charities that resonate with a company’s employees.

Axis Security, for example, takes part in a number of initiatives that include: donating to local hospitals and hospices at Christmas; supporting Spitalfields City Farm by donating man hours the farm relies on to stay afloat; charity bake-offs; and an annual triathlon . Many companies do the same, and are rightfully proud of their achievements. None of this should be compromised by ill-conceived albeit well meaning legislation.

A well thought out, considered employee benefits packages helps an employer to recruit and retain the best officers. It helps to develop their careers, and in doing so it assists a company in providing its clients with an engaged and well-trained work force. I’d be extremely interested to know how security officers weigh the value of the discussed benefits, to an hourly-rate. Research of this kind could perhaps be a starting point to widening the Living Wage debate, giving some perspective as to what it means to be a good employer.