Customers count, but employees matter, too.

In the race to become competitive, companies have adopted a 24-hour workday mentality, formed strategic alliances, and turned one-time competitors into partners in a wave of global mergers that cross the Atlantic and Pacific. But as they reshape their businesses for the next millennium to meet customer needs and demands, all too often companies neglect to keep their own employees informed or determine how the needs of their own employees are changing as we approach the 21st century. Pick any era, and you will find disgruntled workers. But there is increasing statistical evidence -- as well as visible signs of unrest -- that the discontent among workers worldwide is as high as it has been in over 60 years. There has been highly visible labor clashes this year in Korea, China, Japan, Germany, South Africa, and the U.S., just to name a few. Japan is facing unprecedented layoffs. German workers are struggling with longer work hours. South African workers are coping with doing business, for the first time, in a nongovernment controlled market. U.S. workers are fighting for job security, reduced overtime, reduced workloads and -- outside of manufacturing -- wages that exceed the minimum wage and benefits. Indeed, the Service Employees International Union in February organized 74,000 Los Angeles County home-care workers -- labor's biggest organizing victory in the U.S. since it organized 112,000 General Motors workers in 1937. The seeds of unhappiness aren't just among organized or lower-paid workers, either. The Workforce Commitment Index developed by Aon Consulting declined in 1998 in virtually every industry, every age group, every income group and every job category. Just as telling: 40% of the supervisors and 50% of the workers surveyed earlier this year by the Princeton, N.J., management consulting firm of Kepner-Tregoe Inc. said that employees are not satisfied with their jobs. The disparity between management and employees is a worldwide problem. A survey of over 10,000 workers in 13 countries last year by the international management consulting firm Gemini Consulting Inc., Morristown, N.J., found sizable gaps exist everywhere between what workers say they want and what they say they are getting from their current jobs. The biggest gaps, according to workers surveyed by Gemini -- and it was consistent across the four major geographic regions of Europe, Russia, the United States, and Japan -- were in their ability to balance work and personal life, their ability to earn a good salary, and job security. What's the answer? Companies need a four-step approach. First, they must open the lines of communication through informal get-togethers such as monthly brown-bag lunches with CEOs. A case in point: Electronic Printing Systems Inc. (EPS), Milwaukee, shuts down the second Friday of every month at 3 p.m. for a monthly birthday party. Quarterly, EPS goes offsite to a theater for a give-and-take discussion about the company with employees and provides free munchies and soft drinks. Second, they must provide financial information frequently and not just through newsletters. Manco Inc., Avon Lake, Ohio, has white-erase boards in the employee cafeteria that provide up-to-date financial information as well as the progress being made toward company and department goals Third, it is essential to survey employees and ask them what their needs are and what benefits might be useful to them. Why? As Ivy Silver, vice president, Commonwealth Consulting Group, Jenkintown, Pa., points out: "There is a wide discrepancy -- because of different lifestyles -- between what the employee wants and what the decision-maker thinks the employee wants." Finally, involve employees in decision-making and continually ask them whether they feel that the company has made them partners in the business and the decision-making process. That's one way a company will know if their empowerment programs are effective or exist in name only. Another way is when they see employees walking out the door.

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