Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Redefining the Employee/Employer Bond

It’s a shame that a shifting economic climate changes the dynamic of the employee – employer relationship.

When market conditions are pristine and employment is low, the power sits firmly with employees. Companies stressed to deliver on the goods and services sold increase compensation, deliver a broad array of benefits, and serve up promotions even if the title exceeds the employee’s competency.

Despite these lavish efforts to retain, employees are often quick to jump to a new opportunity even if it only modestly increases their take-home pay.

In today’s trying times, its management that stands in a position of strength. Those wonderful benefits? Tabled for budget reasons. Salaries? Frozen and, in some instances, reduced. All the while the specter of layoffs hangs across the organization.

In the past few months, I have read numerous articles and blog posts in which corporate executives suggest their employees should be thankful to simply be on the payroll.

Rather than defining this situation as dysfunctional, I will take it a step further and argue that there isn’t (nor should there be) a relationship between an employee and their employer.

Relationships involve intimate emotional connections that thrive even during periods of stress or turmoil. Personally, I have a relationship with my wife, my two children, my family and a select set of friends. I stand with them 100 percent…regardless of life’s variances.

With the people I employ at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), my goal is to maintain a productive business agreement defined by shared interests and expectations. My responsibilities are straightforward:

--Maintain an environment in which they are set up for success
--Provide a reasonable level of support and resources
--Deliver an honest assessment of performance, even if it is not what they want to hear
--Strive to provide fair compensation

In return, I expect each member of the Strategic team to: embrace the organization’s core values and standards for performance; to represent themselves and the company in an acceptable manner; and, ultimately, to care about their development as a professional.

If I fall down on my part or the employee perceives that their needs extend beyond what Strategic can provide, then it’s understandable for them to seek other opportunities. In fact, I encourage it.

Yet, it’s also important for employees to recognize that difficult decisions often must be made based on the macro needs of the organization. Yes…I have fired people. And we’ve been forced to cut staff. It’s never personal.

No one at Strategic should ever be thankful they have a job. Their employment is well earned and, as long as they deliver on their responsibilities, my commitment to their professional success is resolute.

There’s no moral obligation about it. It’s simply a business agreement.


Jesse Landry said...

In today’s trying times, its management that stands in a position of strength. Those wonderful benefits? Tabled for budget reasons. Salaries? Frozen and, in some instances, reduced. All the while the specter of layoffs hangs across the organization.

You stand in a position of strength because you have the power to pull the rug out from under someone's feet but at the same time your savvy employees are waiting for you to slip up to pounce - desperate times require desperate measures - with salaries being reduced you run the risk of someone claiming favoritism and discrimination which puts the power back in the employees hands. In an economy like this you might think a little bit about some transparency (not full) but some. A relationship with your people might just help ease some of the not so positive transactions that are happening.

I sat in a round table / sound board session with 8 business owners and the number one topic was their relationship with their people.

Good Luck!

PK Schiff said...


The employer/employee relationship is human. As such, while I agree with your straight forward approach to how you manage your employees, I shiver a bit at the thought that any "human" relationship, business or otherwise would be without an emotional connection. To say it's strictly a business agreement based on shared interests and expectations, inherently, discounts the most beautiful thing that separates us from other species...our ability to connect with one another and recognize, build upon, the fact that we are all connected, emotionally, energetically, spiritually, whatever you label it, to one another.

It's at a different degree of emotional attachment but nonetheless important to recognize the connection you have with your employees and what they have with you. It 'Is" what helps the team to successfully weather the storms and enjoy the experience of success (which by the way is the foundational step to establishing a culture of ongoing future success).

We need to be connected. Being "valued" is based on recognizing "me," seeing "me." Not just what I agreed to in terms of a business agreement or what I share with you in terms of business interests and values.

I believe a good leader is able to really "see" his workforce his team, connect with them in a way that sees them and honors "who" they are and what they bring to the Company. Yes, it's a fine line. At the end of the day it's still a "business" but the business is a business due to the living, thriving humans that make it what it is.

I offer this not as criticism but as something to think about.

All my best to you.

Wonderwoman0126 said...

Interesting post and comments. IMHO, to posit that "management stands in a position of strength," is to cede the power to determine your career destiny to your employer of the moment. Is that how you want to be perceived? Is that going to advance your career or help you keep your job?

Face it, folks, lifetime employment has been dead since the 80s, when IBM, the mother of cradle-to-grave employment, downsized and was followed by the behemoth Bell operating companies and other giants in their fields (I was early in my career and saw the shift right before my very eyes.)

Work for hire other than self-employment will always be a supply and demand proposition. There is no such thing as the perfect balance between "employee power" and "management power." But there are many career options out there for those who have an open mind and a proactive mindset.

I kind of agree with Marc on this one. I may be the only one who responds this way, but having worked as both a sole practitioner (very happily even though I once had a $12K gross year) and for some very well-known corporations, my emotional attachment is to MY work product, to the client(s) on behalf of whom I work, and to the profession; NOT to the entity that signs the check. To be simply a slave to your check and your job security is to cede your personal power.

Want to level the playing field? Take a risk. Live within your means, and maintain the flexibility to market yourself when and how you see fit. Know what your professional and personal strengths are and leverage that, as they are your most potent source of power. Only YOU can ultimately determine where your career goes, good economy or bad. To truly see yourself as a victim waiting to have the rug pulled out from under you and to focus any energy in that direction is antiproductive. There is still demand for real talent in this economy. You can take the safe route and wait for your employer to decide they don't need you; OR you can keep yourself relevant, keep your skills sharp and stay ahead of the power game by refusing to bow to it.

Marc Hausman said...

@Jesse, PK and Wonderwoman0126 -- excellent comments and many thanks to each of you for your thoughts.

I have received a number of Emails and direct messages via Twitter critical of my thinking. One person even suggested that I merely view the Strategic team as robots.

That's the furthest thing from the truth. On the contrary, we've tried to put in place an environment at Strategic that respects each staffer as a true professional. We offer a completely flexible work environment and seek to measure each employee strictly by their performance.

That being said, I do recognize that it is important to establish an emotional bond in the work environment. Finding the right balance to be supportive without a "best friend" is the tough part.

Len Chermack said...

What I find fascinating is the employee/employer relationship is also very regional. With the significant cuts in the workforce in the US, I wonder if we are not creating a worse scenario for the future here in the US. I mention intentionally the US. In Europe there are stronger employment laws, so you do not see cuts made so easily and therefore less damage. I believe we will see the Pendulums swing again, and as it does, the swing may move employees here in the US to demand greater security and concessions.

Having run international operations and trying to bring budgets in-line, when management must act quickly, it seems the employees you may wish to keep; you cannot because many European countries make cuts there very difficult. So you are forced to make them in the US and countries where the employee has little defense of government policy and law to protect them in the short term. While unfair to the US workers, I also think detrimental to the company.

It is a lesson I learned with European work councils, you are often led to make cuts where it is easier. In doing so, you may loose valuable employees that can help in crisis. And of course this perpetuates the regional economic downturn. It is a vicious cycle that is not played out fairly in the world. We have learned the lessons of how strong labor unions can create a crisis, just look in Detroit, and an industry became less competitive. We must rethink government’s role in labor and in balance. I have often wondered if it were as difficult to let people go in the US as it was in Europe would we find more creative ways to resolve, or would Asia become the dumping ground? What I do see is that with each recession the pendulum swings, the return swing may prove to be less forgiving to companies who acted poorly.

We need to go back to creating jobs in the US and providing employees more options. Getting IPO’s back in play so we can grow new companies will create alternatives for these furloughed employees. But memories can be harsh. Companies that prove not to be good citizens will find in good times again past employees and their word of mouth may make it difficult for such companies to recover their reputation. I believe it escalates the cost of employee acquisition. These companies are forced to pay more to recruit and hire.
Employees will feel the pendulum return to their favor, the question is what role will our government play in this? I believe we are nation that will come out of this with new and more strained employee/employer dynamics.

Marc Hausman said...

@Len Chermack - interesting point about the global implications of employee relations in the US. Thanks for the comment.

Full disclosure, Len has been a client at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) from his leadership positions at Baan and GlobeRanger. He and I have been friends for nearly a decade.

Terrence Branley said...

I consider myself a "results-oriented" employer, but I disagree with your assessment that the employer/employee dynamic is not a "relationship." Employees/Human Capital are the most valuable assets of any company and as such, there is a relationship. Of course, it is not the same relationship I have with my family, friends or business partners, but that is not the point. I do not have "relationships" with machines, software or business processes. But when it comes to human capital, the nature of the "relationship" is typically a direct correlation to the success of the business.

Marc Hausman said...

@Terrence Branley - thanks for the comment and agree with you completely about the importance of effectively managing human capital. This is especially true in a professional services environment.

Where we differ is in how we define a "relationship." I certainly distinguish between a colleague and a computer.

Yet, I do not view it as my responsibility to motivate employees to perform at a high level. I have to create an environment in which they can be successful, be transparent and consistent, and compensate fairly. Each person then has to decide for themselves what type of performer they strive to be.

Terrence Branley said...

"Yet, I do not view it as my responsibility to motivate employees to perform at a high level. I have to create an environment in which they can be successful, be transparent and consistent, and compensate fairly. Each person then has to decide for themselves what type of performer they strive to be."

And that is where we are in complete agreement! Terrence