I was speaking with my professor a couple weeks ago about engagement and the importance of HR practices when she asked me, “if all these HR practices are so good for business, why don’t more companies take advantage of them to engage their employees?”.
I’ve thought about this before and spoken to many consultants, HR professionals and employees from various industries, so a lot of things popped into my head immediately.
I could go on, and I am sure the reasons listed above are true to varying degrees, but I don’t feel they fully satisfy me. So I responded with the reason that stands out most to me, values.
Some executives have values which are in sync with taking care of people so that they are empowered, engaged, happy, healthy and free to come to work and be incredibly productive and useful. Other executives do not have these values and so they will never be able to create high functioning people practices.
So what kind of values are we talking about?
I’ll expand on why each value is important and why a company can’t create a high functioning workplace if they don’t have these values.
Number 1 is pretty obvious, costs are meant to be reduced as much as possible and liabilities must be secured against. Costs are generally bad and to be avoided, where as investments are nurtured. If executives look at their people as costs, how can they convey any sense of loyalty or trust which is essential in getting employees engaged? Employers express this sort of value system by cutting training expenses, focusing on budgets, lay-offs, avoiding profit-sharing and generally treating the employee as if each dollar in their pocket is a dollar out of their own.
Labour costs are often some of the biggest expenses in a company, and are also often the first to be cut when times are bad. When you believe people are an investment however you are much less likely to release that asset. You believe that people are difficult to replace because you have trained them, ingrained them in your culture and accepted them as part of the “family”.
I just don’t see how any company that fundamentally views employees as a cost sink can ever understand or appreciate the benefits of high functioning HR practices. You can show them all the data, the ROI, the business cases for investing in people but they will not be able to accept and adopt it fully. Even if they do, it will only be temporary because the moment things go bad, they will abandon the cause and revert to reducing costs.
Moving on to value number two. If I let you do whatever you want, you will just browse the internet or be lazy all day. If we give people work from home privileges they will take advantage of us. If we get rid of time sheets, people will work fewer hours. If we don’t put in rules to control people, there will be anarchy. These are the sorts of ideas floating in the head of people who believe fundamentally that employees are lazy, disinterested and ready to take advantage of a company. I find it ironic that some people fundamentally think like this and yet expect their employees to respond positively to management.
I’ve mentioned it before in my blog, but please go read Freedom Inc. or watch this video for an overview of what it is about. They talk at length about how people respond positively and work extremely hard when they are given trust, autonomy as well as meaningful work and the resources to accomplish them. Conversely, rules and boundaries which limit their ability to get things done and send the message that they can’t be trusted result in resistance and disengagement.
If you don’t trust your people do work well, why did you hire them? If you expect people to be lazy and take advantage of you, and create policies that demonstrate those values you will create a workforce that responds accordingly. I believe that this is an almost impossible barrier for many executives because we are so accustomed to control in our lives. It is a hallmark of the way our governments and businesses are run, and on the surface it appears practical because anarchy seems to be the alternative. It is difficult and scary to give up power and control but that is the only way to share it with the people who need to get things done for the company to succeed.
Finally, executives are often extremely intelligent, hard working and driven individuals. This is largely why they have gotten to the top, but that doesn’t mean they know more or are more capable than their employees in all areas of the business. Even if they are, it still doesn’t mean that they are able to make all the decisions and have a hand in all operations.
Good managers and executives are good coaches, which means they actively listen and are able to help their team do better without becoming too involved. They don’t take the monkey off your back, they help you deal with your own monkey! This is only possible if they truly value your expertise and ability to get things done.
It also ties back to the earlier points about investing in your people and giving them the room to work. You must have a fundamental belief that your people have high capability equal to yours in order to entrust them with the important work of making you rich!
I haven’t touched on all I wanted to in this blog, including how values impact strategy, why private versus public corporations have different strategies as well as some of the common rebuttals such as unionized workforces and cases of CEO’s who have these values but still fail. I hope to write more on those topics in the future, but I have really come to believe in the importance of values in organizations throughout my time at Schulich. It never occurred to me before because companies appear faceless, but there are people involved at every level and they are the key to success or failure.