Open a magazine, turn on the radio, or sit in front of the television, and you wont have to wait five minutes before you find something on relationships. We may talk a lot about how we should be dealing with one another, but even the professionals admit that no one is an expert in the realm of human relations.
As much as we may try to separate our business lives from our personal affairs, you dont have to look far to find the parallels between the relationships that we have at home, and those we develop in the workforce. This especially applies to employer-employee relations; if both parties arent working to make things work, then the relationship will ultimately fail.
This is complicated by the fact that the general philosophy on employer-employee relations has changed over the last several decades. Thirty or 40 years ago, there was an implied contract: you were going to work for your company for the rest of your life, and that company was going to take care of you, said Greg Churchman of Churchman Consulting Solutions in Fort Collins, Colorado (www.churchconsol.com). One of the things that has happened over the last 15 to 20 years that has really changed things is the 401k. Before, these large corporations had pensions. Now, the 401k has made it very easy for an employee to take their money from one company over to another, where it wasnt like that with a pension.
This financial independence has led to a more autonomous overall outlook. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the mindset changed. The company is no longer going to take care of you; you are going to have to look out for yourself, Churchman added. That has really effected Generations X and Y, who watched their parents, families, and friends being laid off, and it was ground into them that they have to look out for themselves.
Bill Sharer, president of Exxel Management & Marketing Corp. in Lambertville, New Jersey (www.exxelmanagement.com), points out that economic factors have a significant impact on employee morale. One of the important trends has been doing more with less. Employment levels go up and down, and as they go down, they cut pretty aggressively sometimes, and as the market, economy, or sales start to come back, they add people more slowly to avoid what they probably saw as bloating prior to that, he said. During that interim period, there is a lot of stress on the organization, and a lot of stress on the people that stayed, and those who are gradually added back in.
In an effort to keep employees motivated, employers must be cognizant of this pressure, Sharer says. The conventional wisdom is that it comes from three main places: personal stress, financial stress and employment stress. You cant do too much, as an employer, with two of those, but you can do something about employment-related stress, and the first step is recognizing that it exists, Sharer said. Then you have to let people know that you know its going on, so that when they are experiencing it, they dont have to feel guilty about saying that they need a break, a day off, a change of pace or some different scenery. There are a number of ways to handle that without them needing to take six months off: you can move them around, give them a different variety of work, and a little time off here and there.
At the core of solid employer/employee relations is, predictably, communication. The trick is to ensure that you are communicating effectively. The employer needs to make sure that employees are kept up to speed in terms of how the business is going, Churchman said. You dont need to give them the financials, but you should let them know if the business is doing well, or if it isnt doing as well in a certain quarter.
At the same time, employees should be aware of their responsibility to bring any grievances to the forefront. If the management invites it, and the employee resists for whatever reason, the employee isnt helping themselves or helping the company to help them, Sharer observed. One of the most important things you can do is remove barriers that get in the way of employee performance, and sometimes this can be done with a phone call or the sweep of a pen. It may require just a minor intervention, and the only reason you havent made it is because nobody told you about it.
On-going training and professional development, such as those provided by manufacturer partners and trade associations, are key factors in not only keeping employees inspired, but empowered as well, Sharer says. Smart organizations look towards the education and development of their people, because one source of stress is that the demands of the job are getting ahead of the people, he declared. Many companies enlist outside coaching companies, but they tend to be directed at senior people because they are expensive. If you could get some of those people who are being coached by outside professionals to carry some of those techniques and principles back into their own environment, it would be of more help to the junior people.
One of the biggest challenges that small businesses face is providing a path for employee advancement. In a modest organization, professionals can only progress so far before there are no higher-level positions available. If you do have someone that wants to be a manager, but you already have a manager that has been with you for a very long time, you will have to look at other things that will motivate this person, or sometimes you may have to let that person go, Churchman conceded. You cant keep people forever, and I would rather let that person know what the future holds for them, and if they dont like it, you may have to let them know that you are unable to offer them anything more.
Marilyn Sanford, CEO at Home Cinema+ Integrated Media in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (www.lascala.ca), notes that promoting advancement as an organizationrather than within the companyis one way to address this issue. People want to be a part of a dynamic environment, which means the company needs to be growing and looking for new opportunities, she said. Once they can see that, and the excitement and energy of forward movement, that engages them. They know that there will be changes and that they will be moving forward. Thats a challenge, because you have to be looking at the next thing, at whats on the horizon in addition to keeping the business coming.
Ultimately, communicationproductive dialogue that heralds resultscant be emphasized enough. You need to have meaningful, constructive, managed dialogues, Sharer illustrated. What are a couple of the things that you are working on, and how do you feel about being on schedule with them? What were some of the things that you had hoped to get done last week and didnt? What are some of the things that you are planning to do next week, and what resources do you need? You need to give your employees a way to talk to you, rather than telling them that you have an open door.
Carolyn Heinze (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer/editor.