A four-point plan for creating a healthy workplace climate

Front-line HR strategies for bottom line results: Improve employee relations by focusing on basic needs.

In today’s business world there is a ground swell of frantic activity: centralize, decentralize, organize, reorganize, downsize, rightsize, cut backs, mergers — these are the buzzwords and the certainties of the 21st century. Everyone has heard of them, and most people have experienced them directly, but how well do organizations understand the impact that they can have on their people and, subsequently, the bottom line?

POORLY MANAGED CHANGE
The truth is that change, unmanaged, has the capacity to manufacture poor performance. Poor performance is the rival of success. Regardless of the nature of the organizational shift, when change affects business, change affects people.

Sounds simple enough, right? Change is a certainty of today’s business environment, and people are inevitably affected. Take it a step further: when change affects people, are organizations taking the time to understand how? Even more pressing, are they aware of the detrimental effects that this can have on their business?

The immediate results of poorly managed change are generally those of confusion and obvious dissatisfaction. If these initial warning signs go unchecked, the progression is often towards low morale, decreased productivity, low employee loyalty and high turnover — all of which have the power to spell significant financial loss for an organization. In the end, however, these are merely symptoms. The deeper (and perhaps less visible) problem is that of employee discontent. It is imperative, now more than ever, that businesses everywhere commit to managing the satisfaction and the performance of their employees.

MEASURE EMPLOYEE SATISFACTION
In their book, Bullseye! Hitting Your Strategic Targets Through High-Impact Measurement, Schiemann and Lingle suggest that very few organizations effectively measure employee satisfaction, even though it has been repeatedly linked to bottom-line results. In addition, only 16 per cent of those executives who do measure employee satisfaction report that they have a high degree of faith in the (often limited) information that they acquire (even though 67 per cent of executives consider “people measures” to be highly valuable in terms of determining financial success). If employee satisfaction is such a reliable a predictor of organizational success, why are so few organizations measuring and managing it well?

Schiemann and Lingle suggest that measuring and managing non-financial consequences (such as employee satisfaction and loyalty) may appear difficult to achieve because the process involves converting imprecise expressions like “values” and “beliefs” into specific, measurable behaviours. They also suggest that some executives consider non-financial measures difficult to validate. But, when one considers the cost of failing to take into account the “softer” indicators of success, the need to develop measurement and management strategies becomes obvious.

INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL
As revealed in a report released by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Towers Perrin in January 2001, the strategies that delivered success in the past (like operating efficiencies and cost management) are no longer guaranteed to deliver sound business results in the future. Increasingly, as innovation and new products pave the way for improved returns, the “owners of intellectual capital” — the employees — will become increasingly important to the overall achievement of any business.

The fact remains, however, that surprisingly few organizations have effective tools in place to manage and improve the professional fulfilment of their employees. Although there are numerous sources pronouncing the value of human resource strategies that put “people” back into the equation of “people management,” the past has proved to house a fundamental lack of applicable tools. In the interest of closing this “gap,” a privately-owned, Canadian company called Systems Approach Strategies has developed a new program, CARE, to meet these challenges head-on, and to teach other companies to do the same.

CARE
The CARE Program was designed in co-operation and partnership with Mike Larkin and Diane Shea-Larkin, authors of the book, CARE: Energize Your Company with Empathy. This book presents an easy-to-read, anecdotal story that emphasizes the “human” side of “human resource management.” Building upon the philosophies outlined in CARE, the program brings to life key principles for improving employee satisfaction, and highlights their practical application in the workplace.

Of course, the key to improving the satisfaction of employees involves an initial understanding of what is important to them. Although some may argue that an organization cannot possibly know what is important to all employees, a recent global study conducted by the Hudson Institute, a private non-profit research organization based in Indianapolis, invalidates this opinion.

According to the Hudson Institute study (which included more than 9,700 full- and part-time employees in business, non-profit, and government organizations in 32 countries), five of the top concerns for employees worldwide were:

•fairness at work;

•care and concern for employees;

•satisfaction with day-to-day activities;

•work and job readiness; and

•trust in employees.

Furthermore, a Canadian study, “Workplace 2000: Under Construction,” conducted by the Royal Bank, supports the Hudson data by suggesting that employees in general have relatively basic needs. These needs include: a fundamental understanding of the strategic direction of the company, an opportunity to upgrade skills, recognition for employees who excel in their jobs, and a feeling that their company “cares.” Sadly, this study also reports:

•only 26 per cent of employees in Canada feel that their company “effectively communicates corporate changes;”

•only 36 per cent feel that their company provides opportunities for advancement;

•only 27 per cent of employees feel that their employer recognizes employees who excel at their jobs; and

•only 53 per cent agree that their employers care about them.

When faced with this kind of data, it is not difficult to see how a program like CARE can help, and how necessary this type of approach is to secure the future success of any business. The CARE concept is not a difficult one, and does not require the re-engineering of your business processes. It is founded on four basic principles to answer the basic needs of all employees:

•clear direction and support;

•adequate and appropriate training;

•recognition and reward; and

•empathy.

Any program designed to target and improve employee relations should attempt to focus on these basic areas, and must compel an organization to measure and identify current strengths and critical opportunities for improvement against a benchmark standard of best-in-class companies.

CLEAR DIRECTION AND SUPPORT
Clear direction and support ensures that the purpose of the company is clear. Regular meetings are held with all staff to discuss company performance and direction, and job documents exist for all positions to reflect this purpose. People know and understand what is expected of them, and appreciate the importance of supporting the efforts of others. Management is there to help employees and to remove obstacles. Clear direction and support mitigates confusion, empowers employees and encourages increased accountability.

ADEQUATE AND APPROPRIATE TRAINING
Adequate and appropriate training ensures that all employees have the appropriate knowledge and skill required to perform their jobs well. It means that training is provided for all new employees and professional development plans are made on an annual basis. It gives all employees an equal opportunity to upgrade skills, and promotes job readiness.

RECOGNITION AND REWARD
Recognition and reward ensures that employees experience fairness at work and feel aptly compensated for their efforts. This concept promotes a high degree of job satisfaction and secures promotional opportunities based on job performance. It means that people are made responsible, held accountable and provided with meaningful work. It secures a strong sense of achievement, motivates performance and celebrates success.

EMPATHY
Empathy ensures that employees feel valued. When treated with respect, people are more likely to help each other achieve success. Empathy ensures fairness, cultivates trust and promotes the sharing of information. In order to be meaningful, empathy must be exercised by each and every person within the organization.

Of course, any initiative designed to improve the culture of an organization starts at the top and permeates down to all levels of employees. If a company wishes to translate defining principles into meaningful results, it will require the full support of senior management. Any strategy that lacks commitment will fail. It does not matter how much money is invested, how many memos are sent, or how many posters are hung to promote the message — if it cannot be backed up with actions, the initiative will land heavily on the floor of corporate mishaps.

The refreshing fact is that the opposite is also true. Set up an initiative with sustainable commitment, and your initiative will fly. An effective effort to improve employee relations will engage, encourage, and inspire all employees to achieve new levels of success.

Sarah Benton is the director of client services with Systems Approach Strategies based in Whitby, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 430-8744, [email protected]

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