As long-term readers of my work or listeners of my podcast know I have been an entrepreneur at times in my life. One of my business endeavors was a small out of the home travel agency that specialized in cruise vacations. I thought that particular business was a great idea because I had just been on a cruise and was enamored at what an incredible escapade it was. I thought I could make a ton of money selling such an obviously awesome product. I spent a decade of my life trying to convince everybody I knew, customer or not, on how amazing the experience was if they hadn’t been on one.
I believe that my constant promotion of the industry influenced one of my friends to eventually take the plunge. When I checked in after she got back I was shocked and disgusted to find out that she did not tip her cabin steward. It’s made plainly obvious by the cruise companies that the stewards, who provide tremendous service, are compensated 100% from tips. My friend, who funded herself on the ship as well as her dead-beat boyfriend, stretched her vacation budget well beyond what she was safely able to go and didn’t think the tipping was justification for extending it even further. When I expressed concern for her callousness at what I perceived to be her disregard of accepted social norms, she argued that she shouldn’t have to tip because they chose the job, ie stewards knew what they were getting into. Because of that they shouldn’t feel entitled to a tip. I actually don’t think my friend was that callous on purpose. I really think that her budget was so tight, and the stress and influence of her dysfunctional relationship overrode her good sense. The question then became why didn’t she have enough empathy for the hard-working cabin steward to overcome the other influences in her life when it came to the tip? I realized upon reflection that my friend had never worked for tips in the past.
I have worked for tips, and I know many people who have. It’s not just being a member of the waitstaff at a restaurant that is a tip based job. There’s delivery drivers, cabbies, the aforementioned cruise ship cabin stewards, and a host of others. These jobs all have one thing in common, they allow the person working them to have an intrinsic understanding of what’s involved when working for tips. They understand what deserves a tip, what doesn’t and what it feels like to work hard and not get the expected tip. In the end people who have worked for tips tend to be better tippers and better customers.
This started to get me thinking about the workplace. Specifically emotionally impactful areas at the intersection of work and life that could use deeper emotive comprehension and compassion amongst those that maintain the decision making powers. There are many areas in the professional world that could use more interpersonal insight with decision making but none more impactful than actually getting or losing your job. Like my friend who has never worked in a job with compensation based on tips, I realized there is definitely a percentage of management with personal decision making authority who have never lost a job involuntarily. In many cases the people who are deciding on letting individuals go have had enough of a virtuous cycle to their career that they lose the connection to the devastation that happens with an unexpected job loss. In some cases they even justify it as a positive because they had seen individuals who have been fired go on to great success in other areas. That successful experience for some folks after a displacement makes a great motivational story, but it’s definitely not one experienced by the majority of those that have had a job loss. If you haven’t lived through a multi-month or multi-year job search how can you truly understand what is involved? If you haven’t heard the details of the lives of families who will be impacted, then how can you truly comprehend the impact on people beyond the individual employee?
I totally get that the manager’s role is to positively impact the bottom line or organizational efficiencies in the case of a non-profit and that staffing up and down is a necessity in any organization. I also understand that we live in a world where displacement from a job creates chaos in the life of the employee. When you look at the professional class, in most instances, the transaction cost of a job change is massive. Even if you put aside the loss of benefits that grow with the accrual of time there is still the period between the loss of one position and the gaining of a second position which could take anything from 6 months to 2 years. This extended job hunt time for a professional is because we are trying to land a job in the age of the purple squirrel. Management never wants to invest in developing talent if the option exists to just acquire it quickly. I have discussed in the past the idea of extended severance benefits as one way to encourage retention and reward long service. While that would be good for the employees who have lost their job, especially the ones who have lost their job after a long tenure with an organization, it doesn’t really do much to change the thinking and decision making of managers that would result in an organizational culture of cultivation of talent. Internal talent creation is typically something very high on the list of HR manager priorities. This makes sense as having a pipeline of talent at the ready makes their job much much easier.
That’s what got me contemplating the idea of making a stint in HR a requirement for every manager. It should be long enough that the manager understands all of the different aspects of staffing through a few up and down cycles of a business. This should be more than a couple of weeks, it should be a few years. It’s not just about staffing and retention levels. There are other aspects of HR that can be interwoven into the culture of the business. Another example has to do with internal workforce development. The managers should all become experts at the options available for, and benefits of, internal development. One of the reasons this makes sense is that all businesses are primarily made up in large part by its people. Yes there is the intangible of culture and the tangible of technology & process that are both fundamental building blocks of any business. That being said I believe that if you deeply understand everything that’s involved in managing the acquisition, retention and loss of the people in the business, you will have a completely different perspective beyond moving them around as just another corporate asset.
Internal development and a culture with a huge focus on long term retention work well together. There is a massive productivity loss if an organization is constantly staffing up and staffing down. The benefits of maintaining Staffing levels through a lean cycle would be apparent. It’s not just about letting people go. There are huge difficulties in recruiting for some positions. In a incredibly tight job market management would understand on a visceral level the value of retaining and growing from within versus a fruitless and expensive search in the workforce.
This dual focus could also take recruiting and on-boarding to the next step, I believe the value of staffing long-term unemployed or someone from a different sector versus demanding someone from an existing competitor would become much more amenable to managers. Find someone who is desperate for a job and get them started. Train them up and promise them if that they do a good job, they get the job for as long as the company can afford it. In the end I think it wouldn’t cost money, it would be like a secret sauce for minimizing any company’s cost structure. IBM may pay 120K – 175K for software developers but how much less could they pay staff who have been trained internally and who may find it hard to get a job someplace else? An example would be former offenders. They always appreciate their job and their company if they are done with the offending part of their life.
Another area that could change over time is benefits, both what is offered and how they are structured. It wouldn’t be a one size fits all solution. Telecommuting, flextime, extended personal time, etc. could all be reworked. Different people have different needs at different points in their life. I wonder how many boardroom managers see their workforce and think about that? They think in broad strokes, not in nuanced life-cycle needs. Imagine an employee having their first child. If you want them around for the long haul, doesn’t it make sense to offer them training on how to be highly effective working in a telecommuting environment? Kids get sick, in the south schools’ close when a drop of snow falls. What about an assistance or savings plan for daycare? This doesn’t even have to come out of the company coffers. Offer it as an assistance program to anyone who wants to contribute, if they have kids or not. $10/employee week. The amount is split and distributed evenly to all employees who have daycare age kids. How about time needs of older employees caring for elderly parents? The point isn’t that any of these ideas are ideal, the point is that a senior manager who worked a few years in HR would better understand the different needs of the workforce at a level more deeply than ‘we need to hire twenty new engineers for this project”.
As is often the case with my commentary and musings, I’d love to do a deep dive if I had the time and resources. I think it’d be interesting to do a survey of all the senior managers at fortune 1000 companies who have had several years working in HR and then correlate the benefits offered at those companies as well as their profitability. A highly trained researcher could get really deep into it and even correct for industry standards. The cash rich tech sector will probably have more benefits overall than retail operations with slim margins. The question would be if the retail operation with an senior manager who worked their way up from HR has better benefits compared to other retail sector companies who don’t have an HR expert in their top executive spot? What about profitability? It would be interesting.
Regardless of research outcomes, I know from experience a company with a huge focus on it’s people from the very top generally has happier people. Finding one of them and working for it is one of the best things you can do for your quality of your life. And that my friend is one of the best career tips you’ll ever get and i’m also sure it’s one given often by anyone who’s spent some time working in HR!
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