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Leadership Thought #484 – Regaining Leverage in The Employer-Employee Relationship

February 1, 2017

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Employee engagement doesn’t mean coddling or succumbing to every employee’s need or whim.  Employers, you will always have more leverage in the relationship.  Lately, I’ve watched as many of you have allowed the power dynamic to shift upside down. Given the dearth of talent and supply of qualified candidates, you are slowly letting the “inmates begin to run the asylum” and kowtowing to individuals unnecessarily.  We even have authors and speakers who have made careers out of telling you that you need to treat the younger workforce completely differently.  The basic message is that you need to lead with what’s in for them rather than what you need them to do for you. Yes, the Millennials are different in certain respects from preceding generations, however, they still rely on you to provide their employment – don’t ever forget this.

The best relationships are a two-way street.  Both parties contribute and both parties should benefit.  However, it is naïve and even dangerous to think that both sides bring equivalent weight to the discussions.  Of course, “A” players have options.  They are also a minority of the population and equally subject to geographic and market constraints.  You should treat them well because the ROI is obvious.  Losing them often hurts and involves some short-term pain.  Even given this reality, my experience is that most organizations survive their departure anyway and that time heals the organizational wound.  Moreover, it is always advisable to look at every job opening as an opportunity to upgrade at that position.

All employees aren’t created equal when it comes to their workplace performance and commitment. This holds true regardless of the generation they represent.  What employers need to do is create an environment that acknowledges and rewards the performance of the few, while also setting standards of appropriate behavior for all.  It is not only okay but necessary for companies to set behavioral and performance expectations for everyone.  Most employees aren’t and never will be “A” players (15-20%).  Keeping your “B” players (50-60%) if they do what is asked of them is a wise strategy, but they are replaceable should their demands exceed their worth.  Your “C” players (15-20%) should be identified and moved out of the organization quickly.  They are a toxic drag on everyone else and chip away at your leadership credibility whenever they can.

The employer-employee relationship is transactional in its very nature.  Companies require staff to perform job responsibilities and they get paid in return.  No one would show up to work for long at a workplace where they weren’t getting paid.  And, why would you continue to pay someone who isn’t performing the role they were hired to do?  In most cases, they need you more than you need them, regardless of what the media and some thought leaders would like to portray.  This doesn’t mean you take advantage of this fact, but you understand that being an employer implies a certain responsibility because of this dynamic.  To paraphrase an adage, “you can judge a person’s character based on how they act when they have power over someone else.”

Employees require eight basic things: 1) clarity on what’s expected of them; 2) the tools/training to do their job properly; 3) the ability to work in a safe and ethical environment; 4) regular constructive feedback on how they are performing; 5) a fair wage for a fair day’s work; 6) being surrounded by colleagues committed to doing their jobs properly (who are being held to this standard); 7) opportunities for advancement and growth should their interests and efforts warrant this consideration, and 8) to work for a leader who makes business decisions sufficient to reasonably secure their future employment.

If you meet the above requirements, you are in decent shape because most companies don’t. If you have employees with extensive experience working elsewhere, they will tell you as much. Instead of worrying so much about everything else you are not doing, meet these basics.  Employee perks are nice but rarely game-changers. The fact is that even good employees rarely stay with one company for the entirety of their career anymore.   Employee turnover is an unpleasant fact.  Accept it and manage it. Don’t overcompensate or yield your authority in hopes of being different.

Just like a good parent who sets clear expectations and creates healthy boundaries with their children, employers need to do the same thing.  The major difference is that, unlike our children, we can decide to exit the relationship at our choosing (as can they).  In addition, as previously mentioned, the relationship is built upon a transactional foundation.  Like it or not, if you allow your employees to push your boundaries, they will, and unless you act, this will teach them that it is okay to do so.  Selective listening will emerge if active listening isn’t encouraged.  Accountability will wane if discipline and personal responsibility are viewed as optional requirements. Acting out behaviorally will become acceptable if it is left unaddressed.

Employees now, more than ever, have unrealistic expectations about what you should provide for them.   If they believe themselves to be extra talented, which many of them do, then they will want special treatment.  If they know there is a labor supply issue in your market, they may try and hold you hostage economically.   Please do not succumb to unrealistic expectations. It is your job to be upfront with them from the start about the employer-employee contract in your organization.  “This is what we expect of you, and this is what you get in return with minimal exceptions.”  The guardrails should be visible and enforceable from day one.  Don’t start out by losing.  The goal should always be win-win, but the weight is balanced in your (the employers) favor.

Talented people want to work with other talented people in a safe environment that allows them to do worthwhile work with many opportunities to learn and grow.  They want to know what success is and how they contribute to this outcome.  Boundaries are not just okay but critical for this to happen. Pushback beyond the scope of these issues is just wasted energy on all sides.  Everyone, including you as the leader, is replaceable.  Most employees want a leader who is confident, clear, consistent, fair, and smart with his/her actions.  Employers just want employees who will do their job consistently well with minimal drama while adhering to the organization’s values.  Anything beyond this is really window dressing….

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