Marks & Spencer responds to criticism of secret filming trial

The aim of the trial was to improve customer service and training, but workers have reported feeling anxious

Marks & Spencer (M&S) has responded to criticisms that its recent undercover video trial caused stress and anxiety for staff.

The initiative was piloted across North Yorkshire, south and East Anglia and central Manchester between July and September, and was the subject of a byline recently published on by co-founder of the Centre for Organisational Renewal Norman Pickavance. The M&S scheme involved covert filming by secret shoppers of employees’ interactions with customers.

The stated aim was to improve customer service and training. But staff have voiced concerns about feeling monitored and the system eroding employee-employer trust.

One sales assistant HR magazine spoke to, who did not want to be identified, said many colleagues were unhappy. “I work with a lot of people who are really uneasy about it, and feel it’s an invasion of their privacy and that if there are problems [M&S] should be handling them in a different way… It’s not created a nice atmosphere.”

She added that the initiative had been rolled out in a confusing manner. “I said ‘have I done anything wrong?’ [My manager] said ‘no it’s perfectly fine but we’ve got to show you this footage’. It felt a bit odd. I couldn’t work out whether we were in trouble or not.”

M&S has responded, however, that it took steps to ensure all employees fully understood the aims of the trial. A spokesperson commented: “All store managers involved in the trial attended a half-day engagement session. They followed this up with a team briefing and a set of FAQs were supplied to support all involved.”

M&S added: “Over the course of the trial we captured feedback from colleagues through our employee representative group… The vast majority has been positive and any concerns or questions about the technology have been discussed on an individual basis.”

But HR magazine’s source said that opportunities to voice dissatisfaction felt limited. “The store manager is on board and is really going for it and saying ‘you’ve nothing to worry about if you’re doing nothing wrong’. So you don’t get his support,” she said. “Your own manager is afraid to speak out, so you don’t really have a voice there at all.”

M&S also responded that: “Real video footage technology has been used in the UK for more than 15 years [and] is regularly used by many large retailers as part of customer service initiatives”. But Pickavance, who was group HR and comms director at Morrisons until 2012, said such schemes are a recent growing trend in retail, and that he was “surprised M&S had gone down this path”.

In his byline Pickavance warned of the negative wellbeing and engagement impacts. “While the initiative may be well-intentioned, the unintended consequences of putting employees under surveillance are potentially huge,” he said. “Genuine customer service is about building relationships with shoppers – relationships formed when people are treating each other with courtesy, dignity and respect… What is more, the new approach is undermining the authority of floor managers who are no longer sure their judgment is valued.”

He added: “The problems of staff surveillance are becoming widespread in UK industry; whether through secret video footage, monitoring workers inputting data at keyboards or physical trackers attached to workers in warehouses.”

Originally M&S staff were informed the initiative could be rolled out nationwide. But M&S has told HR magazine that there are now no plans to extend the trial.