Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

What Message is Your Employer Sending?

September 27th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

Talk about work-life balance! It was recently reported that when Chinese schools announced that single-parent teachers would be allowed to keep their jobs in the face of widespread layoffs, 41 teachers at a single school filed for divorce in a week. Could that happen here? Maybe not as blatantly, but it’s clear that workers every day make the choice to respond to their employers’ cues about what’s important to keep your job and get ahead. What messages are being sent in your workplace?

Reuters calls it “Oddly Enough” — news that’s always good for a laugh or at least a healthy dose of astonishment, and an article published today fit right in. In the Chinese town of Dandong, school officials announced that teachers in primary and middle schools would be losing their jobs, unless they were single parents. Workers didn’t take the news standing still — instead, they marched to the courthouse to get divorced. (See Reuters article.)

Although only 35 couples were divorced in Dandong during in all of 2005, 41 couples in one week alone filed for divorce in the town. Finally, officials put two-and-two together (or should that be two minus one?) and called a halt to the policy. They were even able to convince 39 of the 41 couples to remarry. (Perhaps the other two couples were just waiting for a good excuse.) Apparently, it isn’t the first time that this policy has been tried in China — last year, when a company announced that it would recall divorced workers who had been laid off at an oilfield, dozens of laid-off workers filed for divorce in order to get their jobs back. (See Reuters article.)

While I’m sure that the employers didn’t intend for their employees to get divorced, it seems they didn’t really think through the effects of their policies. Jobs are important enough to our happiness and ability to survive in this world that those who work for others have to pay attention to what their employer is saying — and even what they’re implying. But what messages are employers sending? Could some of those messages be so negative that employers are in essence reaping what they sow?

In a recent USA TodayEntrepreneurial Tightrope” column, Gladys Edmunds ponders this question as it relates to employee theft. Based on a conversation she overheard at the gym, she tested the following premise on a few of her entreprenurial friends: all employees steal from their employers in some way, even if it’s merely taking pens and paper. Surprisingly, most of the people she asked agreed with the premise. But the methods they recommended to solve the problem caused her to wonder why this was happening. She says,

Business both large and small influences more of our lives then we want to imagine. Much of what we learn comes from the business world. So my question is: How responsible are we as entrepreneurs in unconsciously teaching employees to steal from us? If this theory is correct, perhaps the time has come for more businesses to take a closer look at what happens inside of a company that would encourage an employee to deliberately take something away that he/she knows could be seen as stealing.

(See USA Today article.) She points to examples of employers who complain about competitors spying on them — but they knew that was happening because they too were spying on their competitors, and one employer who recruited the best employees — by enticing them away from their competitors. One example she personally experienced: she was delayed in getting a perm at her salon, because the stylist had to wait for a manager to unlock the cabinet with the perm solution. She concludes,

I don’t know how you feel about employees stealing from the workplace but my best guess is if you treat people like thieves, they become thieves. When you engage your employees in stealing staff members and customers from other companies and you keep important work-related items under lock and key, what message do you think is conveyed? If you are one to believe that all employees participate in workplace theft I would encourage you to look closer and make certain that your business practices are not basic training for such activity.

(See USA Today article.)

Today the group Winning Workplaces will announce this year’s winners of their Best Bosses Award, which honors “innovative leaders of small and midsize businesses who have created tightly knit workplaces and inspired intensely loyal workers.” While we don’t yet know who the winners are going to be (I’ll update this post once the winners are announced), I’m sure they’re not sending out the message that their employees are not to be trusted, or that the only way to keep your job is to leave your family life behind or divorce your spouse. (Update: Here are this year’s Best Bosses.)

A recent poll of American workers found that many employees are feeling unappreciated. In the Kronos Inc. survey entitled “Working in America: What Employees Want,” 67 percent of 1,050 workers said their job workload increased during the past six months, yet only half received a raise during that period. While more than 80 percent responded that having their companies invest in programs or activities to create a satisfied workforce is important, only 36 percent of employed adults actually work companies that make this investment. What do these messages mean to workers? The same survey found that 58 percent of respondents might leave their jobs if the economy continues to improve, an increase of 12 percentage points from last year. (See Kronos Inc. press release.) Do you suppose those results are connected to one another?

What messages are you getting? Are they telling you that you’re a good employee and that your work is valued? Or not?

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