Monday, 1 February 2010

Employers Demanding Unquestioning Loyalty

I have noted that with the recession and the rise in unemployment, employers are returning to the oppressive behaviour of the 1980s.  Though most companies were not involved in using the financial approach that brought about the credit crunch and recession, they have certainly been happy to exploit it and drive back what they felt were the excessive gains made by employees during the past decade.  I was advised as a manager to crack the 'whip' of unemployment and remind employees that they should not complain about anything, including shortcomings in planning and operations that they see, because they should be grateful that they had a job. 

This morning I heard that 7 out of 10 employers look up their prospective employees on social networking sites and will not employ those using 'bad' language or portraying themselves as drunken in pictures on the website.  Apparently 28% of sackings are now based, not on the employee's behaviour at work but their moans about their work on websites.   I accept that such people are probably foolish to show themselves in that light on easily accessible websites, but when has it been the employer's role to police the morality let alone the spare time behaviour of its employees?  This seems particularly rich when we hear about the often sordid behaviour of leading business people.  Now we seem to have one moral code for the rich and another one for the ordinary people.  Have we really gone back to the 19th century that quickly.  What next?  Children working up chimneys?  Homes for 'fallen' women?  This is the 21st century and I would rather employ someone who had a life outside work and was a well-rounded individual with a social life than someone who obsesses over only work and has no friends.  That sad loner character might be fine for some jobs, but in an age when so much of business is about networking and in particular business with China involves a lot of socialising and drinking, you need someone who can cope.

If you are employing people in their late teens, twenties and thirties and these days it applies to people in their forties and fifties too, why should you expect them to behave any differently to anyone else in that age group?  In the UK, (young) people go out and get drunk, then take photos of it, that is a fact of British life; no employer will ever change that.  Naturally the employers would baulk at anyone telling them or their children how they should behave in their spare time.  Of course, again the rule seems to be that the privileged can behave how they like and the rest of us should lead dull lives in which we thank God every day that our employer has been so generous in giving us work and allowing us to remain in it.  Whatever happened to free will?  Well, as in the past, it again seems to be becoming the reserve of the already privileged.

You might say that even if the employer cannot police behaviour outside the workplace they can expect their employees to be loyal and not to bad mouth the company.  I would argue that that is an unhealthy approach to running any business whether in the public or private sector.  I suppose it is simply an extension of the attitude to customers that puts up facilities for them to complain but when they do the company simply lectures them about what a good service they are actually receiving and why they should be grateful for that, as far too many UK companies do (try complaining to an airline).  To say to employees that they have to pretend that everything is perfect in a company is coming at the issue from entirely the wrong end.  If you run a good business then your employees will willingly, voluntarily in many cases, bear testament to that.  If you are running your business poorly then you need to hear that.  Too many employers forget that it is often the people at the frontline of a business who see where improvements are needed.  Of course, there is an arrogance that such people know nothing and too many British businesses ignore the voice of the 'footsoldiers'.  I would point them to the John Lewis Partnership which continues to prosper despite hard times because of its full involvement of the workforce.

No company will ever suppress bad news about it.  Even if you stamp down on every Facebook page, every Tweet, every blog entry about your company, then it will still spread by traditional means such as word of mouth.  You have to remember that you have no control (even the intelligence services have found this) over former employees who will often go out of their way to draw attention to what you are doing wrong.  The only way to combat such bad publicity by current and former employees is to listen to them while they are working for them and rather than jump on discussion, if you feel something needs to be different to how they feel it should be done, then you should be in a position to defend how you are doing it.  Suppressing comment about your business is lazy and means that you will miss the vital warning signs that could save you from serious problems in the near or more distant future.

The other thing these employers forget in these days is that 'no news' is actually 'bad news'.  In many ways, despite wanting to attract the best staff, they patronise us and assume we do not investigate them before we even start applying for jobs with them.  In the same way they forget these days that in an interview, they have to impress us as much as we have to impress them; again higher unemployment is making them entirely lazy in this respect and they assume applicants will take any job offered. So, we investigarte.  If I find a dearth of information about the company on the internet, social sites, blogs, etc., then naturally I am going to be suspicious of them from the start.  In addition, I can learn nothing about the company's strengths and weaknesses.  Of course, there will be official sites, but only a fool takes those at face value.  I am far more likely to take my expertise to a company that is open about how it works and its challenges than one in which all of this is hidden and any critical comments are suppressed.  Companies without discussion inside stagnate and walk into pitfalls they could have avoided.

Another serious mistake that employers make is to assume that loyalty to a company is the same as loyalty to particular members of staff.  Weak or bullying managers make this mistake repeatedly.  They emphasise the employees must be loyal for the good of the company, whereas in fact they make it clear that they mean loyal just to them.  This can damage an employee's standing in the company as when the weak and the bullies fall as they will sooner or later, those who seemed to back them can suffer too.  A good manager, like a good company does not suppress comment whether positive or not, in fact they solicit it as a valuable check on their own activities and because of the benefits, noted above, for the broader company.  A manager choking off comment because they fear what they will be told, is damaging their company because it is not getting those measures from frontline staff and the warnings about current or upcoming problems that you need to keep a business thriving.  You only had to watch a single episode of the series 'Back to the Floor' ( shown on BBC 1997-2002) to see that.

Policing expression of your employees' views let alone censuring their spare time activities is the sign of a vulnerable, insecure employer who forgets that workers are people and are better for having a full life.  Critically, it is far better for the longevity of your business that you do not use the 'stick' of loyalty to suppress the comments you need to hear.  If you work to earn that loyalty not only will have have a more effective workforce but you will attract solid business now and good employees in the future.  Blocking expression is just the sign of a poor employer and one heading for bankruptcy.

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