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Hammering your employees is self-defeating

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Many years ago, I ran a seminar on customer excellence for a leading corporation. When my presentation was over, I began taking questions from the floor. The first question was this: ‘What should we do about bad customers?’ I offered what I thought was a comprehensive answer. To my surprise, the next question was also about ‘bad’ customers. And the next, and the next…

In the end, I figured out what was going on. The employees were not really interested in my views about customers; they were railing against a management policy. This policy: if any goods were returned, the money lost was taken out of employees’ salaries. Hence the passive-aggressive outrage in the seminar. They felt aggrieved because of the unfairness of being punished for things that were outside their control.

I had been asked to deliver that seminar because of my first book, Crown Your Customer. I made a note then to avoid that particular client in future. It has since been teetering on the edge of collapse. I also made a mental note that for future books, there was no point in talking about customers without talking about employees first. Happy employees create happy customers. There is no other way.

And so in my latest book, The Bigger Deal, employees loom large. I urge employers to think beyond the human resource, and see the human being before them: the one that can be enjoined to do outstanding work and create outstanding businesses that span generations.

Few employers see this, however. Have you noticed that at many restaurants, if you send a dish back the waiting or cooking staff will become very nervous? Why? Because any money lost has to come out of someone’s salary. That is why arguments and blame-games often ensue. Someone’s going to pay for any mistake, and it ain’t going to be the employer.

This is so short-sighted a policy that you wonder how it can persist. And yet it does. Think about it a little more deeply. It says this: if you make a mistake, you pay, not the organization. Therefore, don’t make mistakes. At a superficial level, it seems fair to the low-wattage mind. Why should I pay for my employees’ incompetence? That would just encourage more incompetence. If they mess up orders, or cook the food badly, let them pay for it. That will teach them to be more careful. That’s a good thing, right?

Well, it depends on what you think you’re in business for. If it’s just to make some short-term money, sure, exploit all your resources, including the human ones, to the limit. Milk everything. Maximise your margins, cut your corners, pay only what you can get away with, carry no one.

That, people, is called a small deal. It’s all about you; it’s all momentary; and it’s extremely narrow-minded.

If you thought a little more deeply and broadly, you would see that your employees are not your troublesome resources; they are your fellow travellers on your quest. Sure, you might own the boat, but you need good workers on all the stations if you are to get to the destination. Great businesses do not emerge from the petty exploitations of one person; they come from great spirit engendered in all those involved in the quest.

If you want to build a great business, one that outlasts you, you have to select your people very carefully; you have to train them painstakingly; you have to reward them equitably; you have to have their backs; and you have to be fair in how you treat them. The prize for that is a shot at greatness. Otherwise, mediocrity is your only play.

If you treat them like serfs and simpletons, pay them like a tightwad and penalise them for every joint failure, what is it you expect from them? They will only pretend to give your their best. And that’s fair enough, since you only pretend to give a damn about them.

Bigger people go for bigger deals. Their work is to create harmony between many elements. Happy employees, happy customers and happy shareholders is the play. No element is sacrificed for any other.

You can of course ignore this completely, and keep up your petty tyrannies and witless practices. But don’t be too surprised if the fall of businesses like yours is being discussed in a few years’ time.

(Sunday Nation, 21 July 2019)

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