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Our primitive approach to managing our employees

Apr 29, 2007 Management, Sunday Nation

There is a public notice that seems peculiarly Kenyan, and it appears in our newspapers nearly every day. It’s so common-place as to be almost banal, and most of us can recite it from memory.

“The person whose photograph appears below, ID number XYZ, is no longer employed by the ABC company. He/she is no longer authorised to make any transactions on the company’s behalf, and the company will not be liable for any commitments made by aforementioned individual.”

A more extreme version adds: “If you are aware of the whereabouts of this individual, please report to your nearest police station.”

The fact that this is an everyday occurrence is truly a cause for worry. It shows the immaturity, almost the primitiveness, with which we handle employee relations in this country. Company owners and managers are perpetually in conflict, rather than in harmony, with their staff. We revel in combative relationships, not supportive ones. Our default position is suspicion, not trust.

What is really being said in those notices? To paraphrase: “The ingrate that we picked up from the street and employed, and whose family we fed, that ungrateful wastrel, is no longer employed by us. He/she left us to join our competitors/purloined company funds/had a blazing row with the MD. We want the world to know that this poisonous individual was thrown out by us, and may go around pretending to still be in our employment and commit acts of fraud. Be warned, world! This is a bad, bad person.”

Some will tell you that they are merely being prudent in putting out these notices, that it is a legal requirement to warn the world that so-and-so no longer has authorisation to enter into financial transactions on their behalf. I think the bigger reason is to belittle the person who has left, and to appear to take the moral high ground.

It’s sad, all of this, because it reflects the way in which so many of our companies address their human capital. The tired old colonial mindset still thrives: employees are not ‘assets’, they are a necessary evil. You can’t leave them alone for a minute – they’ll rob you blind. The more you give them, the more they’ll want. Concede a finger, and soon they’ll have their grubby paws all over your anatomy.

That mindset leads to a certain type of management practice. Don’t give employees the power to make decisions. Don’t allow them to authorise payments. Don’t ask them to contribute their thoughts or ideas. Give them the minimum training they need to do their jobs. Pay them as little as you can get away with; identify two or three influential ones whom you can sweeten to take care of the rest.

Employees respond in kind. They hate their employers, and look for every opportunity to hit back. When a chance comes to put their fingers in the till, they do so with alacrity, citing their low pay as sufficient moral reason to do so. When a new job offer comes, they jump without further thought. If they can take advantage and ruin their former boss’s market, they do it with glee. To put it crudely, when you treat people like shit, they create a stench.

And so we have a hate-hate, lose-lose situation in which our famous press notices become necessary, and the whole country suffers. Why? Because this type of management is light-years away from what is accepted as enlightened practice in advanced economies. Those who understand this have accepted a fundamental truth: that lasting greatness in any company comes from the way in which it motivates and inspires its people to do great things. Plant, equipment, technology, capital – all else is secondary. It’s the people in a business that cause everything else to happen.

What we often fail to understand is that it’s not pay and perks that people crave most – it is personal growth. People want to have meaning in their lives, and work is the primary arena in which that can be achieved. People want to belong to a higher cause, be part of a bigger idea. They are capable of great loyalty and commitment to companies that make them feel involved, that reward their contribution, and that provide them with a clear career path for personal growth.

Equally, when these vital ingredients are missing, employees are capable of pettiness, bitterness and hostility. They can turn larcenous and even violent. That is where we remain stuck: in organisations built around the personality cults surrounding their owners and leaders; and in a fly-by-night culture where employees are perpetually looking to abscond.

In one organisation whose customer-service department I have called many times recently, I have yet to encounter the same employee more than once. They have always ‘left the company’. How sad that we find it so difficult to grow talent and keep it. There are no great companies without great people.

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