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Spaces of active disengagement across the food retail shop floor

Anastasios Hadjisolomou (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Article publication date: 22 August 2022

Issue publication date: 2 January 2023




The article challenges the narrow view in scholarship which presents disengagement as passive and simply the absence of condition of engagement and explores how food retail employees articulate their disengagement within the intensified customer-centric service work. The article adopts the term “active disengagement”, as presented by Ackroyd and Thompson (2016) and empirically examines this as a form of oppositional voice towards managerial norms and behavioural expectations.


The article draws on qualitative data from two case study organisations in the Cypriot food retail sector. Forty-six interviews took place with participants across different departments, including front-line employees and front-line and senior managers, to better understand the research problem through different perspectives.


The data show that disengagement is an integral part of organisational life and it is expressed in an individual and less-risky way. The data also reveal a variation in disengagement actions across departments, depending on employees' mobility on the shop floor and the intensity of interaction with the customers and the line manager. Shop floor employees enjoyed a wider “space of disengagement”, in comparison to those working on the front-end/checkouts. Nevertheless, checkout employees have developed sophisticated actions to express disengagement.

Research limitations/implications

This research provides a refined understanding of active disengagement in organisations. It empirically contributes to the existence of a spectrum of engagement and expands Ackroyd and Thompson's (2016) “active disengagement” framework, discussing it as a form of oppositional voice towards corporate values and the customer-centric work intensification.

Practical implications

The research provides empirical evidence that employee disengagement is not merely the absence of engagement, as HRM scholars and practitioners have argued, but entails further social meanings. This article will be useful for practitioners to rethink, revisit and revise employee engagement programmes in organisations, as well as to re-write corporate values, mission and vision, to also consider employees' experiences within the workplace. This will allow the provision of social support by management to address active disengagement in service organisations.


The study provides an important insight in employees' individual actions to express disengagement towards corporate values and managerial expectations related to customer service. It highlights the variation of dynamics across the food retail shop floor, which has been treated as a contextual periphery within the disengagement debate. Applying a broader lens on retail work heterogeneity, it provides further understanding of the diversity of how frontline service workers express disengagement within the triadic employment relationship. This study offers ground for future research to examine active disengagement in various contexts for better conceptual and practical understanding of this behaviour in organisations.



Hadjisolomou, A. (2023), "Spaces of active disengagement across the food retail shop floor", Employee Relations, Vol. 45 No. 1, pp. 140-155.



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