Employment - Partnership or Prison?

Bart Castle SPHR
May 24, 2006 — 1,613 views  
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Business owners regularly comment, “Ten, twenty years ago the bad news was I felt like I had a target on my back. The good news was most days that target felt about the size of a coffee cup. However, today, between the constantly changing laws and regulations and my employees, most days I feel like that target is the size of a garbage can lid. What should I do? Maybe I should just sell the place!” It is easy to understand the sentiment. Consider the following items. For the 2005 calendar year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was involved in over 75,000 charges from individuals across the country. Those charges resulted in payments via enforcement action or litigation of over $100 million dollars. Last summer (2005) a group of the most active, effective labor unions (in terms of attracting new members) broke away from the AFL-CIO and formed a coalition, “Change to Win.” The coalition is building a war chest in excess of 2 billion dollars with the express purpose of increasing the percentage of American workers who are organized. The group is committed to devoting 75% of its resources for one purpose – organizing unions across the country. And finally, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in February that could potentially provide leverage to employees at even the smallest businesses. In such a climate, employment is going to be one of two things, for both leadership and those led. It’s either going to be a partnership or a prison. Frankly, there is little middle ground. While it sounds overly simplistic, I regularly ask colleagues and business owners to name the middle. Guess what? I’m still waiting. Creating a partnership with employees is the answer to many of the challenges employers face today. People who are reasonably passionate, clear about what they are trying to accomplish, encouraged to take reasonable risk, recognized when they succeed, and held accountable in an appropriate manner when their efforts are unsuccessful succeed more often than they fail. Don’t take my word for it. Wasn’t that the message twenty years ago of “In Search of Excellence”? What about the writings of Ken Blanchard, or the recent writings of Jim Collins (“Built to Last” and “Good to Great”)? Creating a partnership with employees, including those who are blue-collar, semi-skilled, or marginally educated, is possible. In my experience, most employees do not want to be the boss. They simply want the boss to recognize they are not an inanimate object. Unfortunately, creating a partnership with employees is the management equivalent to the notion of service for many leaders. What business says openly, “Our service stinks?” On the other hand, virtually every business touts its “commitment to excellent service.” Yet, each of our common experience suggests that the ”commitment” is actually a commitment to getting the words “excellent service” on the marketing literature, which is fairly easy to do given a decent copy editor. Ask a company like CSG Hull Benefits, whose service is truly unparalleled, how diligent they have to be EVERY single action, every single day to meet that promise. They will tell you it is consuming. Bluntly, most organizations simply are not willing to exert that kind of effort. It requires focus and passion; it means little down time from 8 – 6 (and beyond); it means accountability for errors instead of excuses; and in some instances, it means an employee will not remain at CSG. Employee partnership is similar. It begins in the application stage and touches every single aspect of the organization, every policy, every department, and every manager. The application looks different, expectations are phrased differently, and disciplinary action looks different. But, before jumping to conclusions, this is not some grown-up baby-sitting service I am advocating. To the contrary, I am advocating a philosophy that is clearly focused on both parties succeeding. Sometimes succeeding means an employee goes because this is not where he or she will apparently be most successful. Sometimes succeeding means the longest tenured employee does not get promoted, yet he or she understands because the expectations about the organization’s goals were clear from his or her initial interview. Success today for both business owners and employees is absolutely possible and it need not involve the threat of litigation or 3rd party representation. It does require talented people working together in some very specific ways. For both those in leadership and those led, employment should be a partnership and not a prison. Your company employs plenty of talented people. You get to choose whether those talented employees work like your partners or wards in your prison. Which do you think will work more productively to achieve help your organization’s goals?

Bart Castle SPHR

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Bart W. Castle, of the Sapio Group, LP, has been involved in virtually all facets of human resource management over the past two decades.