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Looking After Your Staff Is Good For Business

By Maev Martin
Looking After Your Staff Is Good For Business

Aine Griallais, Director and Head of HR at Circle K Ireland and Head of HR Europe for Circle K, talks to Maev Martin about becoming Ireland’s first forecourt retailer to achieve the KeepWell Mark, recent HR initiatives, including their annual Kindness Day, and an in-store technology that is helping staff to quickly de-escalate challenging situations.

Circle K introduced Kindness Day on 25 January last year.

The initiative is about encouraging public kindness towards retail workers and addressing the issue of unacceptable customer behaviour.

“The retail environment has changed a lot in recent years, and we are seeing more instances of colleagues receiving harassment from customers,” says Aine.

“Kindness Day is a way of focusing on frontline workers, and their importance, and asking customers to be kind in their dealings with them.


"This was the second year of the initiative, and we ran it across all European countries.

"It gets good traction from customers and is a talking point between customers and employees.

"It is also well highlighted in the media. I think this is because it isn’t just seen as a Circle K initiative, but an issue that affects all retailers and retail workers across the industry.”

Kindness Day

When Circle K launched Kindness Day last year, they carried out industry-wide research that surveyed 500 people employed in a range of retail settings in other companies across Ireland.


The research revealed that 75% of Circle K employees and 83% of Irish retail workers had experienced some abuse from customers.

“That research emphasised to us that it wasn’t just a Circle K issue, but a wider retail industry issue,” she says.

“We have presented our strategy on the importance of reporting abuse to other retailers via IBEC, where we have shared our company’s experience and the industry experience, and the other retailers have recognised that their experiences are like ours.

"For that reason, we would love to see Kindness Day become an industry-wide initiative and not just a Circle K initiative.

“Collaboration with IBEC is allowing us to work with other retailers to collectively address the various forms of harassment that retail workers are experiencing from shoppers.


"Retail is often seen as a part-time, transient job for a lot of people.

"Now that we are in full employment, it can be difficult to attract and retain employees in retail, so we don’t need the added challenge of those employees being harassed in the course of their work.”

However, Kindness Day is just a very small part of Circle K’s focus on the wellbeing of its retail workers.

For instance, onboarding surveys carried out six weeks into an employee’s journey with the company ask various questions about the employee’s general experience as a member of the Circle K team.

Their exit survey includes questions about harassment – whether they have experienced it, do they know where to get help within the company, and if their manager is giving them sufficient support.


Circle K also launched a bi-annual anti-harassment survey at the beginning of this year.

“This will allow us to track how successful we are in dealing with the issues raised by our retail teams,” says Aine.

“We can gather all the data and encourage employees to report incidents, which has been our focus for the past year.

"However, we are now looking at the initiatives we have in place and if they are making a difference.”

Read More: Some 83% Of Retail Workers In Ireland Have Experienced Harassment From Customers, Research Shows

Reporting Harassment

Circle K interior

Other HR initiatives to support Circle K staff include online harassment training, a new reporting process, and anti-aggression and de-escalation training.

“We introduced the online harassment training last year and we got great levels of engagement with it from staff – there was over 95% completion across our over 2,200 employees,” she says.

“We had a reporting process in place, but we wanted to make it even easier for employees to report incidents of harassment.

"We did this by erecting posters behind the till area with a QR code, which staff can scan and then answer two simple questions.

"Once this happens, the complaint is logged, and the manager can follow up on it.”

Monitoring Aggression In-Store

Circle K’s anti-aggression system involves the installation of a monitoring system in its stores that allows a trained operative to dial into the site remotely if there is an incident.

The employee hits a button on their wrist which alerts the remote operative who has a view of the store.

The operative can then contact the Gardaí immediately if assistance is needed because of an ongoing incident.

When they dial in and see the incident, they can request that the person causing the problem leaves the store and inform them that the Gardaí have been called and will be in the store shortly.

The remote operative is from an external partner company that is trained to do this.

“We looked for technological innovation in the market that would help us to deal with this issue, and we came across this remote anti-aggression monitoring system via our security partners and advisers,” says Aine.

“So far, the system has been rolled out to 14 Circle K stores and we have found that over 80% of incidents in these stores are resolved by the intervention of this remote operative, so we are planning to roll it out to another 76 locations this year.”

In addition, Circle K’s in-store teams receive de-escalation training around using the right language and body language to ensure they are doing as much as they can to de-escalate difficult situations.

Operation Táirge

Last December, An Garda Síochána introduced Operation Táirge in response to the rise in retail crime throughout Ireland.

Under ‘Operation Táirge,’ Gardaí nationwide are working on reducing organised retail crime.

This includes working with retailers to strengthen their security and prevent them becoming victims of this criminality, supporting those working in retail to report a crime, and working with high risk retailers to enhance prevention, investigation and prosecution.

“We are aware of Operation Táirge and we have some involvement in it,” says Aine.

“It is a commendable response to what is an alarming rise in retail crime across Ireland.

"We work closely with the Gardaí to ensure that we report instances of harassment and we give them all the details they need to investigate.

"We also liaise with the Gardaí to get advice on security measures that will make our stores a safe environment for staff and customers.

"In areas that have high levels of anti-social activities, harassment can take place every day, so we want to ensure that it doesn’t become an accepted part of our employees working day.

"We do this by focusing our efforts strongly on those areas and ensuring that all instances are reported.”

Read More: Gardaí Target Organised Retail Crime As Shoplifting Reaches ‘Pandemic’ Levels

KeepWell Mark

Cora, Tony & Mark hold up the KeepWell Mark in Circle K

In 2023, Circle K became the first forecourt retailer to achieve the KeepWell Mark which, according to IBEC’s website, ‘focuses on key areas of workplace wellbeing, ranging from leadership, mental health and absence management to physical activity and healthy eating’.

“We are very proud to be the first forecourt retailer to achieve it,” says Aine.

“Achieving the KeepWell Mark involved a survey and review of all our retail initiatives and that was carried out across our retail workers in-store, as well as our office colleagues, so we are proud of having achieved it across both our stores and support offices.

“The KeepWell programme prioritises wellbeing across various dimensions, including training and development, mental health support initiatives, absence management strategies, and employee-focused policies.

"Examples of the latter include our recently introduced miscarriage leave and fertility leave policies.

"These policies apply to all our colleagues across both our offices and stores, no matter what role they have and regardless of how many hours they work.

"This makes our policies more equal and inclusive.

“We also operate good flexibility policies on career breaks, and we are very employee focused when it comes to facilitating requests and having flexibility built into the work that employees do. We offer a free tea, coffee and lunch for all colleagues working a shift, so everything in our deli and food range in-store is open to them, including healthy fruit and vegetable options.”

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Circle K is proud of its diverse entry-level workforce.

However, Aine says that the focus now is to ensure that this diversity continues as people move up the corporate ladder.

“We want to ensure that there is diversity in all departments and at all levels within our stores and support offices,” she says.

“The Circle K parent company holds Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) townhalls for the entire company and it is a core pillar of our sustainability work.

"DEI townhalls are run once a quarter.

"Lots of different programmes emerge from these townhalls and the focus can vary from country to country.

“In Ireland, we focus largely on disability and inclusive recruitment across our stores.

"For example, we have work placements with partner companies such as John of Gods and other groups, offering people work experience who might not otherwise get a chance to participate in retail.

"Those partnerships are very successful, and we get great feedback from the work placement participants and from the teams that they join.”

Aine has noticed big changes to the HR management role over the years.

“HR is now about much more than hiring and firing, which might have been the sole focus for many companies in the past,” she says.

“It has become a more all-encompassing role as a lot of the DEI initiatives that we and other companies have introduced are a much bigger part of retail businesses than they were before.

"The attitude to work has changed and this has encouraged employers to commit to creating more employee-centric organisations and support structures, with an emphasis on health and wellbeing, good communications with your employees, and investing in their professional development.

"This is becoming the norm now and I think it is a very positive change.

“The focus on DEI can be challenging as it involves a lot of investment and bringing people on a journey with you.

"However, the rewards can’t be underestimated, both for the company culture and in terms of the improved financial results.

"For example, Harvard Business Review reported that EBIT margins for companies with diverse management teams were nearly 10% higher than for companies with below-average management diversity.

"In addition, diverse teams are more capable of addressing market segments with demographics similar to some of the team members.

"For example, a 2013 Harvard Business Review affirms that when at least one team member shares a client’s ethnicity, the team is more than twice as likely to understand that client’s needs than teams where no member shares that trait.”

Recruitment and Retention

In Ireland, Aine works with a seven-strong HR team and three people from Circle K’s HSE team.

Wearing her Europe hat, the scope is bigger, as she partners with some of the senior executive and functional teams across various countries – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as well as teams in stores that Circle K has recently acquired in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.

Prior to her role as Circle K’s head of HR in Ireland and Europe, Aine was Circle K’s retail human resource manager.

She also held roles as a retail area manager, retail HR business partner, and employee relations manager at Topaz Energy, prior to the Circle K takeover.

Given her vast experience in human resources, how does she see the industry addressing its current recruitment and retention difficulties?

“Ireland is, in effect, at full employment now, so that creates a challenge in attracting and recruiting new staff,” she says.

“Workers across all sectors are likely to be open to new opportunities and move roles a lot more frequently than they used to.

"This is a positive development for employees, although it creates more challenges for companies. However, you can still get good candidates and you get a greater diversity of candidates.

"Businesses must adapt to this by focusing more on employee benefits and wellbeing and looking after their teams – that is what companies must do more of to attract and retain the right candidates.”

The Focus For 2024

For the remainder of this year, Aine says that Circle K will continue to invest in developing its store management teams.

“People may be attracted to a brand, but they are loyal to, and stay with, a management team, and that is strongly linked to staff retention,” she says.

“We will continue our focus on introducing policies across our stores and offices that support our colleagues’ wellbeing, we will roll out the anti-aggression monitoring system to another 76 stores, continue our de-escalation training for all colleagues, and focus on preparing for our Kindness Day for 2025.

"In fact, we are hoping it will be Kindness Week next year to make the public even more aware of this important issue for retailers and their teams throughout the country.”

Read More: Do On-Pack Sustainability Claims Influence Buying Decisions?

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