Brandt On Leadership -- Staying Together

Dec. 21, 2004
Your relationship with your employees could be better.

The dynamic between employer and employee is more complex than ever before. Global competition and the rapid evolution of technology in most industries have left most companies with a utilitarian view of employee relationships: necessary, long-term if possible, but ultimately transient. The resulting quarter-century of downsizing, outsourcing and offshoring has convinced many employees that loyalty to a job or plant or company is a thing of the past, and that the only fidelities that count are to your own career and family. Through the pain of dismissals and bankruptcies, we've all become gimlet-eyed realists. The only problem with this surfeit of realism is that human beings -- and the organizations they create -- don't operate at their best through suffocating practicality, with one eye on the clock and the other on a budget or paycheck. The best businesses, projects and products all start from a place of curiosity and impossible what-ifs, followed by relentless effort, consistent investment and boundless determination. Yet how can these things happen if both sides are constantly keeping score, distrustful of the other's intentions? Clearly, we need a new social contract between employer and employee -- one that recognizes the fragile, possibly temporary nature of our interaction, but also allows us to live and work together as if our commitments were permanent. This social contract would bind us to each with three overriding principles: Competence: In a corporation we have a right -- a fiduciary duty -- to demand competence. Employers have a right to employees who:

  • Are well-educated enough in the basics to understand and interpret technical manuals and instruction;
  • Comply with the normal social conventions of work -- including punctuality, attendance, appearance and dress, and civil interactions with colleagues;
  • Complete the jobs for which they are needed efficiently and with minimal supervision.
Employees have the right to employers who:
  • Are well-acquainted enough with their markets to focus development, production and service activities with long-term growth and margin potential;
  • Will provide a safe and secure work environment equipped with appropriate tools, resources and time to complete the jobs;
  • Offer training and the potential for long-term growth, both financially and in skills portfolios.
Engagement: Showing up on time or providing a safe work environment is important, but hardly more than table stakes. Employers have a right to employees who:
  • Arrive at work in spirit as well as body, ready to delve deeply not just into today's to-do list, but into discovering what customers want and why -- and figuring out how to provide it;
  • Develop long-term relationships with colleagues, customers, competitors, communities and other constituents;
  • Act more like owners than employees, with an eye toward investments and activities that promote long-term organizational growth rather than short-term personal gain.
Employees have the right to employers who:
  • Understand that success reflects long-term commitment, and measure performance over periods longer than a single quarter;
  • Offer meaningful opportunities for employee participation in strategic direction and day-to-day management;
  • Provide financial incentives that both share the fruits of success and reward long-term effort.
Loyalty: Even in this post-modern era of diminished employee/employer expectations, both sides have the right to expect loyalty -- although not in the employment-for-life/everything-for-the-company manner of the past. What employers and employees can expect is this:
  • That both will use their best efforts to protect and safeguard the other's future;
  • That each will be frank with the other if they feel that this commitment isn't being kept.
A promise of anything more, by either party, would be both dishonest and worthless. And who wants work with someone like that? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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