I'd love to find a company that's honest in its mission and values statements as related to employees. Rather than the usual flowery bromides, this hypothetical company might have a statement like:
"We see our employees as replaceable commodities, and strive to extract maximum effort from each and every one, while ensuring they're denied access to professional development, opportunities for self-improvement, and an ability to make an impact in the community, to the maximum extent permitted by law."
While that seems laughable, indeed many companies subscribe to a statement that's not far from this tongue-in-cheek statement. It's amazing to watch companies and leaders wax poetic about the importance of their employees, and then treat them horribly.
Are employees your biggest asset?
A classic bromide is that "our employees are our biggest asset." Whether you're a leader or an employee, it's worth assessing if that is truly the case. Rarely will companies explicitly state that their employees aren't really all that important, but there is certainly a sliding scale of sorts when it comes to how employers value their employees, and it's not always reflected in the talent required to fill a position. I've long been amazed at how poorly the arts treat employees, especially those just starting out, as if verbal abuse and mistreatment were some sort of rite of passage. Even within the same industry, different companies place a different degree of value on their employees. I've spent my career in consulting, and there are dramatic differences despite this largely being a people-oriented business.
In the technology sector, some companies see their technology or method as the most valuable asset, and people as a secondary or tertiary concern. These cultural norms usually are not explicitly stated, and oftentimes as leaders we happily accept the "party line" and then act in an opposite manner since everyone else is doing it.
Why it matters
It's worth assessing what value your company truly places on its employees, if for no other reason than than it allows you to make a realistic judgment on how you manage your staff. As an employee, a similar process will help guide how you grow and develop your career. For example, if sales are critical to your company, as a leader it behooves you to treat your sales force well. As a potential or current employee who works outside the sales department, you might plan your career differently when equipped with the knowledge that you'll ultimately be valued and treated differently than a sales employee.
As a leader, once you separate word and deed, you will be better equipped to evaluate and develop your staff. If your organization places little value on the employees you manage, you might manage to optimize productivity and live with a high staff turnover. If employees truly are your company's most important asset, and you find you're only dedicating a small slice of your focus to developing and retaining your employees, then you can take corrective action, as you're likely failing as a leader in the eyes of your management.
I've been exposed to a large number of companies, both as an outside consultant looking in, and as an employee of a variety of different organizations. Perhaps the worst part of how organizations value their employees is that it's so difficult to assess, and varies widely even between employers of a similar size in a similar industry. For example, I worked with two different companies in the same industry. In one, action and experience in the field were far more valuable than degrees or credentials, and to succeed you had to literally get your hands dirty on the front lines. In the other, value was placed on credentials and management ability, even if you lacked direct experience in the industry. Very different sets of people were valued, developed, and ultimately promoted at these two organizations, yet each had the usual spiel about valuing employees in their official documentation.
As leaders, it's important to help our current and potential employees, and even outsiders whom we engage to work with us, to understand what employee attributes are valued, and what types of traits the organization perceives as important. Unfortunately, in many organizations employees are left to their own devices to discover the rules of the road, in the best case making them less effective at the jobs we pay them to perform, and in the worst case causing them to leave the organization or stick around for an entire career as an ineffective mass that's just there to collect a paycheck. To truly value their employees, leaders must realistically understand the value placed on those people under their direction, help them understand what's expected of them, and ultimately groom and advance those who best fit within the organization's parameters.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.