On Quality in the Workplace
Although swept out into the unemployment wilderness, along with millions of other over-50 workers in the 2009–2010 corporate pogroms, I consider myself lucky in my professional experiences. I wasn’t sorry to leave the grind. I’d long become disgusted with the transformation of the once great company I worked for into a lying behemoth, which force feeds its employees on a diet of utter nonsense about their importance to the organization along with an equal dose of pervasive fear that the next “resource action” will cost them their job, their lifestyle and their savings. I had had the opportunity to start work in this firm before its slide into competitive mediocrity, when the founder’s values still held sway. Not having been raised in a family that had any corporate ties and, hence, no basis of comparative conversation, it was not until the values were shunted away that their importance and wisdom were evident. Originally, respect for each person as an individual underlay the management ethos. Customer service was paramount and formed the basis for the sterling reputation of the sales team. Striving for excellence in one’s professional and personal life set the expectation for performance that was internalized by many. The company was also socially progressive, although that was not always easy to see from an internal perspective as external change often occurred in a much more dramatic fashion.
What has increased my appreciation for these values is not nostalgia for a better time. To be clear, prior decades’ benefits always had their balancing detriments. To earn a great salary, you were owned by the company. As technology became more invasive, you had no real vacation, no weekends, no time for family, community, spiritual enrichment, or enlivening pursuits. You worked….all..the…time. Everything else was expected to be secondary. And it became secondary. Spouses and children were neglected. The outdoors was neglected. Life was essentially a well-off prison. The striving for excellence did produce amazing organizations and work products, but did not prevent otherwise very successful people from being sexist, homophobic, racist and elitist within the company’s status framework. I would not trade that narrow box for today’s increasingly open and integrated society. The progressive outlook many hold today is better and we are better for it. Millennials’ focus on better-balanced lives and on goals that prioritize personal fulfillment and relationships over professional status and conspicuous consumption will lead to a saner society.
So, why do those original values seem so meaningful now, years into my and my millions of colleagues’ expulsion from corporate America? It is simply that they provide a clear summary of what can be found missing in my work-related ventures since. The one thing about working in a large company that looks for and has the money to hire the “best” people is that it is a cosseting experience. Further, when your positions in that company require that you build relationships with key executives, managers and influencers in other successful companies, you are constantly exposed to people who are performing at or near the top of their abilities. It took expulsion from that world to gain exposure to an astoundingly different set of business commonalities. Working in these latter day environments, by contrast, has renewed my gratitude for the caliber of work colleagues and the professional environment I was fortunate enough experience and to help develop during what I considered, while I was in it, a rather ordinary corporate career. It also fills me with a mix of despair, dread and sadness about the future of the country if the deficient elements now so prevalent are not somehow addressed. Let me explain, using the 3 pillars of the founder’s business wisdom noted above as a framework. I’ll assure you that these vignettes are based on real and recent experience and are not just a list of worst practices compiled over a lifetime of work.
Respect for the Individual:
- Right job, right person: Just because there is a person in a seat does not mean that they should be assigned to do whatever needs doing and is not getting done. In one small firm I worked for, unfortunately, this was not the case. Whether it was a marketing task, a customer service intervention, project management or tracking the company’s certification paperwork, the responsibility was given to either the newest hire or to one of the employees who wasn’t drowning in work that day. It didn’t seem to matter whether the person assigned actually was good at that type of work or even whether someone else had already been working on a related task. The result was often mediocre execution and a dose of confusion amongst the staff as to who was doing what. Employees are usually adept at a specific range of things; some tend to be quantitative and do not want to do customer service work, some tend to be very social and do not want to do IT work, some tend to be detailed and do not want to work in blank-slate environments, and so on. The point is that if you respect your employees, you will find out what their proclivities and talents are and honor them in work assignments. People can grow beyond their initial talents but a) they have to want to, and b) they need help to do so. Randomly assigning them ill-fitting work because they’re in the office that day shows not only that you, as a manager, have not seen them, but that you haven’t tried.
- Respect for the whole team: People need to feel valued. When the value hierarchy so favors one position type over all the others you will foster poor morale and resentment. For example, while Sales is important and the Executive team is important, it is disrespectful and demeaning to everyone else who makes these actors successful to declare in an all-employees meeting that “this company lives and dies by the sales team” and “you’re all here to support them”. No. This is simply inaccurate. The work of the marketing, operations, back-office and support teams are just as essential as the work of the sales team. A great sales person is no good without the permitting, contracting and fulfillment work needed to complete the sale. An excellent executive leader is useless without the people who implement the ideas. Our compensation systems are often over-weighted to the sales and executive jobs. Not only is this unfair, it is exceedingly unwise. The best organizations use compensation structures that reward, inspire and unite the whole team, not one over-prized element of the team. When an organization does not do this, it pays for its injudiciousness with low morale, high turnover and intra-team strife. When your organization works as one respectful team that appreciates the work of each component, you will optimize what you get from each member of that group.
- Graciousness/Respectful language: I once worked for a business owner who believed that it was unwise to praise employees for good work. It spoiled them, she said. She had raised her children with high expectations, had withheld praise and applied the same ethos to the workplace. Needless to say, many of the employees feared this boss and there was an atmosphere of paranoia in her organization. Staff were just waiting for the next critical comment and often wondered if they were about to get fired.
People need feedback and to know when they are doing a good job. They do not need to be excessively praised or coddled, but a simple “thank you” and “good work” when good work has been done, will go miles towards driving loyalty, confidence and the extra effort that these feelings drive. |
But language is just one aspect of communications. In one company I worked for, one of the VPs was a young woman who never turned around to face employees who came into her office to get a question answered. There she sat, looking at her computer screens, head of dark hair between you and her voice. Aside from fraught communications, this signaled disrespect, distain and distance. Would you want to work for someone who cannot even turn around in their chair to look at you when you’re trying to help them? Be courteous. It’s quite possible to do this while still radiating authority.
- Sexism/Homophobia/Misogyny/Racism: These are not dead. They rule with casual authority. You should not call your employees “bitches”, even in jest. You should not give all your marketing, customer service, and paperwork jobs to women and all your sales and field jobs to men. You should not refer to anyone as a “faggot” at work. Really, it does matter. What you say and how you say it says much more about you than about the people you are talking about.
- Don’t Lie: There is nothing so disheartening as finding out that you have been lied to in the course of trying to do your best for someone. It’s insulting and it shows that trust is absent in the professional relationship. This is a betrayal, especially when one is in a role to make commitments to external entities, i.e. customers, partners, municipal entities, suppliers. It is one thing to realize that because of an internal failing within the organization that one cannot deliver on a promise made in good faith. This can be dealt with and reparations arranged. But when you cannot deliver on a commitment because you were lied to about resources or funding, then damage results that cannot be repaired. You will hesitate to make commitments in the future based on what your employer tells you. You will not be willing to put your reputation on the line based on what your employer says you can offer. And former employees will not enhance a firm’s reputation if they leave knowing that management is dishonest.
It is important to differentiate in this discussion between not lying and giving away strategic or proprietary information. There are many ways to safeguard sensitive details about the business without lying to your team. First, it’s not necessary to share information unreservedly. Second, as an employer/manager one has the right to set direction and change priorities without providing the entire context behind one’s decision-making. Third, one can often provide enough information about an alternative direction forward to keep team member’s engaged and focused without burdening them with the details of the underlying issues. The job is to keep employees engaged, committed and feeling like their work is valued. Being dishonest with them will do nothing towards those goals.
- Communicate personnel changes: Really, this is the one of the most basic elements of respect and courtesy in the formation, maintenance and management of a team. When employees leave without any announcement or explanation, not only does it signal disrespect and a lack of value for that person, it sends the same signal about the rest of the team. “You are not worth even a short e-mail for the time you’ve spent with us.” It also leaves people at a loss as to who they are to turn to for the departed person’s responsibilities. The same applies to when people arrive. Your team members will need to know what he or she is going to be doing, how the person fits in the organization and what they should be looking for from that person. When management says nothing, it makes the new person’s integration much more difficult and does not provide the new person with any sense of place or acceptance.
Pursuit of Excellence:
- Literacy: The pervasiveness of various levels of illiteracy in the working populace is astounding. It’s one thing not to know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and it’s quite another not to be able to construct a simple sentence using punctuation and capitalization. The failure of schools and families to provide young people with the rudiments of language is certainly an issue that we must confront, however, in business this becomes an issue of quality, effectiveness and efficiency.
- Communications: The death of basic courtesies in the workplace has been extensively noted in business literature. But a rudimentary amount of basic communication is necessary for the efficient function of an organization. Meetings should be announced and calendar notifications should be issued. An agenda should be provided. Responsibilities of team members should be documented so that everyone knows what to expect and where to go for certain functions. Team members should know how to get in touch with their managers and, when the manager is away, they should know who else to contact. Events should be discussed with all potentially affected parties so that coverage can be planned instead of panicked over and so that conflicts can be identified well before an event. Management and team leaders should meet regularly and often to discuss issues, events and tactical direction so that everyone is a) informed and b) working from the same playbook.
- Messages and directives should be double-checked for clarity, for spelling and grammar and should be placed in a context so that employees will be able to understand what you want them to do. “Meeting 630 slaes “ is not going to cut it. Is the meeting at 6:30 or is it at some 630 address? Does “slaes” mean “sales” or is it about a customer named “Slaes” ? What is the date of the meeting? Where is the meeting to be held? Who should attend? I’ve seen this sort of pathetic communications in many instances and am always amazed that the business functions at all.
- Let people know how they’re doing. Hold formal reviews of your employees. Let them know how they’re doing, what is working and where improvement can be made. When people work without any feedback a number of bad things occur. They either become insecure and imagine that they are going to be fired any minute or they become arrogant and start taking risks that are not aligned with the company’s strategy or values. Either way, a talk at regular intervals to provide guidance and a sense of what their future with the company looks like will help avoid problems and get the best and correct type of performance from the team members.
- Proper dress: If you are a CEO or senior officer of a company, you carry the image of your company on your body. When people first see you, they will assess who you are and how serious you are by your self-presentation and, by this, I mean your clothes, your haircut, your hygiene, and your speech. They will assess whether you respect them through these lenses as well, So, if you show up to a regional planning meeting in a track suit, even if the shirt is branded, and brightly colored gym shoes, and you are not unfortunately a multi-billionaire software developer in Silicon Valley, the impression that you’ve generated just might not seem as serious as if you bothered to put on a suit or even slacks and a button-down shirt. Just because you are most comfortable in clothes that you might wear to a picnic or to the gym does not mean that others will see past that to your sterling personality and fabulous business sense. It is a sign of basic respect to dress appropriate to the event you will be attending.
- Hygiene: Let me be clear. You cannot smell bad and provide good customer service. Why? Because your colleagues and your customers will want to flee the room that you are occupying and will not be able to concentrate on the sincere and enthusiastic presentation of how you are going to address their needs. People, you need to shower or bathe and use deodorant. Often. It doesn’t matter how many conflicting extracurricular activities you need to attend to. It doesn’t matter that you are otherwise a very nice person. Hygiene is paramount. And just because you cannot smell your own stench, it doesn’t mean that others cannot.
- Preparation: Not last minute. Be on time: I once handed my (young) CEO, the firm’s owner, a plum commercial job, having developed it completely to the point where all he had to do was meet with this busy and successful business owner to close the deal. The customer wanted to go ahead and we needed the project. It took many tries back and forth, but we finally agreed on a time that the two of them could meet to finalize details, sign the paperwork and agree on an implementation schedule. I ensured that the meetings were set and went over the appointment with my boss the day before. I confirmed this important meeting with the customer as well. The afternoon of the meeting, my boss called me to say that he was going to be late because he had to go to another job. He was an hour and a half late for that appointment and was authentically mystified as to why the meeting went poorly and why the customer had turned against the deal. We lost the job.
Be on time for appointments. It shows respect for the customer, for yourself, and for any proposal that you are trying to bring forward. This applies to everyone.
- Respect: Please do not use profanity in business communications. Do not refer to customers in profane or demeaning terms, no matter how difficult they are. The way management speaks about customers, suppliers, vendors and their own employees sets the tone for the entire organization. If management refers to customers as “a**holes” then the sales team, the customer service team, the marketing team and others will think it is alright to treat them as such. Your business will suffer.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll stop at this point. The concerns covered above will seem to many to be rudimentary, and they are, but it doesn’t mean that these are not common problems, because they are. There are several other articles worth of observed poor management practices that could be discussed but these concern higher levels of business management, such as having a coherent business strategy and operational management coordination. Basic quality in business practice requires elementary competence in fundamental areas. Working on the issues detailed above will help lay the foundation for a better performing enterprise. When a business is built on the three main values of Respect, Excellence and Service, you will be building on a solid foundation that your customers, business partners and potential mentors and investors will recognize and value.