What Talia Jane’s Story Teaches Us About Employee Engagement

You may have heard about the blogger, Talia Jane who wrote an open letter to the CEO of her company, the San Francisco upstart, Yelp. In her letter, she shared her point of view on how she cannot sustain a lifestyle on the wages she’s being paid.

Clearly, Talia has some talent in social media because her post got immediate results:

  • She was fired the same day.
  • Her post started a firestorm of conversation, and a few hashtags (the most popular being #taliajane).

The buzz spread far and wide and here are just some of the topics her letter and the resulting conversation touched upon:

Entitlement

Millennial workers, of which Talia is a part, have an entitlement complex. Readers with this point of view opined that what she was struggling with is part of “paying your dues” and it’s entitled for her to think that she should not have to do so.

Prevailing Argument: Talia should suck it up, get a roommate and/or a second job.

Corporate Greed

The fact that Talia could not earn a living wage with her full time job while she’s working for a successful company, and a millionaire CEO (to whom her letter is directed), were another common argument. Theorists cited that the middle class is disappearing and this company is able to thrive only by not paying their people a fair wage.

Prevailing Argument: CEOs are overpaid and the wealth of companies isn’t trickling down to employees.

Minimum Wage

Though she has a college degree, Talia earns $12.25, which is the minimum wage in San Francisco, California where she is employed. Many responded to her post with outrage that something is really wrong if you have a full-time job and it isn’t enough to live on.

Prevailing Argument: The minimum wage should be a living wage.

After reading the various points of view, I concluded that this issue is one that’s strongly tied to employee engagement. Talia Jane’s experience at her workplace and the messages and meaning she took from that experience are the common string running through her letter.

Talia Jane vs Yelp Is About Employee Engagement

From an employee engagement lens, companies are struggling with employee morale and retention. Companies are looking for ways, not just to avoid a public burnout like this one, but to avoid retention issues and to improve employee productivity.

There is much wisdom regarding employee engagement in Talia’s story. Here are the most prominent lessons.

Employee Engagement Lesson #1: Get the right people in the right job.

“So, I picked the next best place: somewhere close to my dad, since we’ve never gotten to have much of a relationship and I like the weather up here. I found a job (I was hired the same day as my interview, in fact).
Coming out of college without much more than freelancing and tutoring under my belt, I felt it was fair that I start out working in the customer support section of Yelp/Eat24 before I’d be qualified to transfer to media.”

During the recruiting process and the hiring process, don’t only promote the features and benefits of working for your company. Promote the features of benefits of working for your company IN THE position they have applied for. While holding out hope that one day they’ll be able to ascend to the eighth floor can keep them motivated, you’ll have a disappointed employee in your hands sooner than you think.

Talia accepted the position, not because she was interested in it, but because it filled a few of her desires for a job. It was in the Bay area, near her father and it offered an opportunity to eventually move into a position that she was more interested in. That’s it. She really had no interest in the position.

Employee Engagement Lesson #2: Make sure employees understand the value of their benefits and non-cash compensation.

“Let’s talk about those benefits, though. They’re great. I’ve got vision, dental, the normal health insurance stuff — and as far as I can tell, I don’t have to pay for any of it! Except the copays. $20 to see a doctor or get an eye exam or see a therapist or get medication. Twenty bucks each is pretty neat, if spending twenty dollars didn’t determine whether or not you could afford to get to work the next week.”

Although she complained about her compensation, Talia mentioned that her company provided her with health care, free of charge except for a $20 copay for doctor’s visits. She is appreciative of the benefit, but did not see its value to her.

Talia may not realize that her medical benefit is worth at least $400 a month just for coverage. And many plans require deductibles to be met and then a heftier payment than $20 for a doctor’s visit.

It’s not clear what other perks she enjoys other than health insurance and snacks, but add them all together and her total compensation is significantly higher than her hourly wage.

The cost of benefits should be transparent to employees. As a part of her offer letter, employees should learn the value of the benefit plans, programs and perks — both monetarily and in life impact, such as convenience.

The message about the value of benefits should be consistent and repeated often. Every week or month, Talia should have learned something new about how to get the most from her benefits. There may have been features of her benefit plans that offered her some solutions that she may not have been aware of. For example, if Yelp offered a transportation reimbursement program, she could have enrolled in that thereby lowering her taxable income and allowing her to pay her transportation costs with pre-tax funds.

Employee Engagement Lesson #3: Turnover impacts eeevrrybody.

“…Do you know what the average retention rate of your lowest employees (like myself) are? Because I haven’t been here very long, but it seems like every week the faces change. Do you think it’s because the pay your company offers is designed to attract young people with no responsibilities…”

Based on Talia’s description, it sounds like her former employer might be experiencing a high turnover rate in the Customer Service department. It’s not unusual for Customer Service or call center departments to have a high turnover rate. It’s a difficult job, with high and constant demands. Employees are deskbound for hours upon hours. The work is also repetitive and after a while an employee might even feel like a robot. This is one of the factors that makes Customer Service a prime candidate for outsourcing, sometimes even overseas.

High turnover sends a message to the employees who stay behind. Even though they may not have moved on (yet), seeing a revolving door of other employees makes them feel dispensable as well. It leads to them not feeling value in themselves or think they hold a respected position. Talia also mentions:

“…Except on the weekends when the customer support team is working, because we’re what makes Eat24 24-hours, 7 days a week but the team who comes to stock up those snacks in the early hours during my shift are only there Mondays through Fridays, excluding holidays. They get holidays and weekends off! Can you imagine?)…”

It’s clear that not only does Talia feel like her contribution is not valued, this whole department is a wasteland as far as she’s concerned. High turnover can lead to that viewpoint. Talia was angry that her department was viewed as “second class” citizens. For example, not being able to enjoy snacks over the weekend because they are the only ones working.

Employee Engagement Lesson #4: Be careful with how you ask for employee feedback. And, how you respond.

“I did notice — and maybe this was just a fluke — that Yelp has stopped stocking up on those awful flavored coconut waters. Was that Mike’s suggestion? Because I did include, half-facetiously, in that email he and Patty so politely rejected that Yelp could save about $24,000 in two months if the company stopped restocking flavored coconut waters since no one drinks them”

Talia’s sarcasm couldn’t hide her bitterness at making a few suggestions that were not accepted. Employees will make many suggestions. Some of them can change the business, employee experience or customer experience for the better. And, some of them are impractical or difficult to execute.

It’s always good to give employees the opportunity to provide feedback, and then acknowledge them when they do so. Then, tell them what you plan to do with their idea. If you can’t accept it, try to share why not.

I wonder, why did Talia submit a suggestion anyway? Did the company invite her to do so?

Keep in mind that when you invite feedback, employees often expect you to do something with the information they share. This is why when conducting employee engagement surveys, I always advise my clients to only ask questions about things they plan to address. Don’t ask employees for their opinion on something that is not going to change. Asking the question sets up the expectation.

Avoid asking for feedback that you don’t plan to act on.

Employee Engagement Lesson #5: Offer rewards, acknowledgement and incremental career opportunities.

“I was told I’d have to work in support for an entire year before I would be able to move to a different department. A whole year answering calls and talking to customers just for the hope that someday I’d be able to make memes and twitter jokes about food.”

Can you believe that it would take A WHOLE YEAR before Talia could move into another position?! For many of us, that sounds reasonable. For other, workers, especially eager, younger workers, it sounds like an eternity that they can’t possibly survive.

Talia is disappointed to learn that she has to stay in the Customer Service job for a year before being able to move into other positions, like one that would let her be responsible for writing witty tweets. It’s a reality. No longer can an employee wait a year for acknowledgement of accomplishments or for an opportunity to move to the next rung on the ladder.

Although this may seem new, think about the conversation around Performance Management for the last few decades. HR has emphasized that the performance conversation is not one that should happen once a year. It should happen all the time so the employee has a chance to grow, improve and be fully informed about what’s working and what’s not. It was a best practice for a while. Now it’s a must.

Frequent reviews, feedback and new opportunities are proven ways to improve retention and employee productivity.

“Do you know how many cash coupons I used to give out before I was properly trained? In one month, I gave out over $600 to customers for a variety of issues. Now, since getting more training, I’ve given out about $15 in the past three months because I’ve been able to de-escalate messed up situations using just my customer service skills. Do you think that’s coincidence?”

Talia mentions that she was so much better at customer service because she had learned how to handle situations. We can’t tell from the letter whether that was acknowledged by her manager. But, significant improvement, such as going from $600 average in freebies to $15 but having the same amount of satisfied customers could qualify for a promotion — in Talia’s mind.

Consider making your career ladder have more rungs so that employees always feel as if they are moving forward. Allow promotions to happen more than just once a year. And acknowledge employee growth as it happens.

Employee Engagement Lesson #6: Reward managers for their business results, including how they treat their people.

“Did I tell you about how I got stuck in the east bay because my credit card, which amazingly allows cash withdrawals, kept getting declined and I didn’t have enough money on my BART Clipper card to get to work? Did I tell you that my manager, with full concern and sympathy for my situation, suggested I just drive through FastTrak and get a $35 ticket for it that I could pay at a later time, just so I could get to work?”

This one is tough area because as a manager, I would have responded exactly like Talia’s manager. I would have thought: I’m not sure why you’re sharing your personal information, just do what you need to do to get to work.

I once had a new employee call in and say she couldn’t report to work because of a snowstorm. I was shocked that in her first week of work, she wouldn’t make the effort of getting on the Long Island Rail Road to come into the city for her new job. I made it to work. I developed an impression about this employee based on that early incident. I assumed that she wouldn’t be a hard worker. That she wouldn’t do everything it takes to get shit done.

Turns out, that couldn’t have been further from the truth and she was one of the hardest working and most eager to learn associates I’ve ever worked with. She was just a Long Island girl who didn’t plan to find a way into the City during a snowstorm!

Look, as a manager, you have a lot of priorities. At the top of the list is doing what it takes to meet the goals you’ve been given. Then you have to take care of your employees, answer to your higher-ups, try to meet your personal goals and solve your own problems. Add to that an employee calling with a personal issue and it can feel like one thing too many.

Yet, people want to work where they feel seen, heard and appreciated. And they’ll do their best work in those environments as well. One way to do that is to hear them out and try to understand them.

It’s unclear to me what Talia expected her manager to do when she called and said she didn’t have the money for transportation to work (but again, I’m the bad manager who would have thought why are you telling me this?). Did she expect him to tell her to not come in? Did she want him to loan her money? It’s unclear, but at a minimum, she wanted to be heard. She wanted some compassion from her manager at that moment. More than just what she saw as an impractical suggestion that only focused on the business.

Surveys show that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Emotional intelligence is now higher on the list of manager skills than it’s ever been. Managers need more support than ever, as well as an acknowledge that their job, when done well, requires a tremendous amount of people skills.

Employee Engagement Lesson #7: An unengaged employee will hold the company responsible for their own decisions.

“Because they taste like the bitter remorse of accepting a job that can’t pay a living wage and everyone kept falling over into the fetal position and hyperventilating about their life’s worth. It really cut into the productivity that all those new hires are so prolific at avoiding.”

Talia spends quite a bit of time talking about her various expenses — how she can barely afford her rent…how she eats rice for dinner every night..goes to bed hungry… can’t afford to get her car fixed.

As I’m reading, I feel compassion because I have been in the same position. Back in the 90s, at the beginning of my career, I had a full-time job and TWO part-time jobs. It was a hustle, but one I saw as worth it for forward momentum in my life — plus, I had student loans!

At the same time, I kept wondering where her problem-solving came in. Does she need the expense of a career and public transportation to work? Is there a way she can lower her housing cost? Is there a food co-op she could join to enjoy fresh, sustainable and shareable produce from nearby farms?

The letter wasn’t about solutions. It was about what the company was doing wrong. Everything was the company’s fault. Because she’s unhappy at work, all of her issues are caused by the company, her rent costs, car troubles, everything.

Is this rational? It is to Talia because she sees her low salary as the cause for all her problems.

Once an employee has become disgruntled, they become an irrational, negative force that can’t see past what makes them unhappy to move into problem-solving.

Was Yelp right to fire Talia?

Some people disagreed with Yelp firing Talia, I think it was a smart decision. The relationship between she and Yelp was beyond repair. I do think the situation shows that Yelp has some work to do to ensure that they aren’t fostering a culture and work environment that creates more employees like Talia.

As for Talia, I think she has a future in fundraising or sales. Her blog update, which announced that she had been fired, gave readers three ways they could contribute to her cause. Being willing to ask for the sale is the first step to getting it. Perhaps Talia has already stumbled into her future.