­Resilience in the Face of Adversity: Frontline Employees as ‘Heroes’

Valerie Good, Amy Greiner Fehl, Alexander C. LaBrecque, and Clay Voorhees reflect on their article, “Cultivating Resilience in Organizational Frontline Employees,” which was published in the Journal of Service Research.

Dubbed “The Great Resignation,” popular press lamented the record-breaking trend of employees quitting their jobs, which sparked our initial interest in studying what leads to resilience in organizational frontline employees (FLEs). Moreover, McKinsey & Company conducted a study and discovered industries relying heavily on frontline workers were the most at risk. Following years of economic uncertainty and seemingly constant flux, many companies worldwide felt the pains of an ongoing labor shortage, particularly in customer-facing roles. Across a range of service contexts, employers struggled to improve employee effort and performance while reducing turnover.

Hence, in this research, we focus on what leads to resilience in FLEs. Resilience is defined as an employee’s ability to overcome or bounce back from adversity. Given the nature of frontline operations, some degree of adversity is expected, but recent crises have made intense and continual adversity part of the “new normal.” For example, FLEs were forced to work despite their own health concerns and frequently tasked with security measures like checking masks or vaccinations. The challenges faced were so pronounced that the press called frontline workers “heroes.”

Some companies tried to encourage resilience by offering “hero pay” or additional financial incentives. However, while these steps may have merit for other reasons, we predicted and empirically demonstrated that FLEs do not demonstrate resilience simply for the pay. This may seem counterintuitive to those managers who think that they can buy resilience from workers. We echo claims that employers have become too fixated on financially incentivizing employees who have other critical unmet needs.

Headshots of authors Valerie Good, Amy Greiner Fehl, Alexander C. LaBrecque, and Clay Voorhees
From left to right: Valerie Good, Amy Greiner Fehl, Alexander C. LaBrecque, and Clay Voorhees

Findings from the three studies we conducted in organizational frontline contexts confirm the importance of resilience and demonstrate its association with increased employee effort and reduced turnover intentions. Moreover, we find that resilience can change over time and is not just a trait the employee is born with (or not). Results show that rather than being motivated by a desire for pay, FLEs’ resilience is driven by a sense of competence and relatedness to not only coworkers but also customers. Rather than projecting customers as another problem to deal with, findings show that customers may be a resource in times of stress for FLEs. Surprisingly, we find that autonomy is negatively related to resilience when customer orientation is low. We suspect that employees may appreciate more direction from their managers during times of adversity.

While we did not have space to include the following study in this paper, we conducted another preliminary study and discovered that among the 173 participants employed at some point during the onset of the pandemic, 38.95 percent quit their jobs. We also measured and assessed the impact of resilience on these voluntary turnover decisions and found that resilience was associated with a reduction in frontline turnover (b = -0.65, p<.05) to the extent that a one unit increase in resilience reduces odds of turnover by 48 percent. Overall, our findings offer managers guidance on how to cultivate resilience to improve frontline employee effort and reduce turnover intentions in the face of adversity.

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Valerie Good, Amy Greiner Fehl, Alexander C. LaBrecque, and Clay M. Voorhees

Valerie Good is an assistant professor of marketing, Seidman College of Business, Grand Valley State University. Her research focuses on marketing strategy within the domains of personal selling and sales management and organizational front lines.

Amy Greiner Fehl is an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Gwinnett College. She explores transformative healthcare policy, marketplace crises, and connection through meaning-making in sales and services marketing.

Alexander C. LaBrecque is an assistant professor of marketing at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics of the University of New Hampshire. His research focuses on marketing strategy, sales, digital marketing, and advertising.

Clay M. Voorhees is professor and Morris Mayer Endowed Chair of Teaching Excellence in Marketing, University of Alabama. His research focuses on customer experience management and relationship marketing.

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