Are you with me or for you? What’s seriously broken in many employers’ mindsets

A few weeks ago, I did a post on LinkedIn sharing an article about The Great Resignation. The post was prompted by the fact that I had just returned from a workout where I was told that yet another of my favorite coaches had resigned their position. I’ve been a part of this particular gym community for almost five years, and pre-pandemic I knew all the coaches well. Now, I know only one.

There may be several factors driving the turnover in this one organization. I don’t know. I only see what I see as a customer. But it doesn’t take an insider to see the dynamics hitting workplace after workplace, this one included.

What I’ve observed from clients as well as being a customer is this:

  • People are fried, regardless of whether you are the employee or the employer.
  • Meaningful recognition is deeply meaningful, yet fleeting and hard to achieve or sustain.
  • The stress is contributing to a lack of connection between us. As a result, it’s killing our relationships at work, which in turn poisons the workplace.
  • Many employees are struggling to make ends meet as housing costs soar and pandemic pricing has created inflation. According to Kiplinger, “the 12-month inflation rate is 5.3%, and should stay that high through the end of the year. This will be the highest rate of inflation since 1990.”
  • Women comprise 39% of the global workforce yet accounted for 54% of overall job losses during the pandemic. A recent survey by McKinsey & Company reports that one in three women are seriously considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether because of the burnout.

Women, more than men, continue to shoulder a greater burden between work, family, household responsibilities, caretaking, and the like. The demands and cost of child care alone are significant stressors, particularly in rigid, inflexible work environments. In some companies, the imbalance in power — and compensation — between employees, managers, and owners is so significant that it oozes from every crevice of the organization. Employees are not blind nor powerless, however. Their power is being flexed in the Great Resignation.

These observations are backed up by news story after news story. A search of Google News on the word “strike” helped uncover at least seven significant employers whose workers have authorized a recent strike, if not fully enacted one, including:

  • Kaiser Permanente;
  • Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York;
  • Kellogg’s Cereal;
  • John Deere;
  • Disney – Newport Beach, California;
  • Kennedy Center Stagehands; and
  • Hollywood production workers.

The issue in each of these instances is not over COVID mandates. It’s about the same things the Great Resignation is about — how companies treat, respect, and compensate their colleagues. It’s about how we work with each other.

Note the word choice there. Work WITH — not hire, not employ. Working with your colleagues, regardless of title, is a completely different mindset than the usual employment model of “me boss, you not.”

What changes when you work with someone:

  • You acknowledge that they are your peer and co-worker. You share a common objective. You understand that you have different roles in achieving that objective, yet each role has recognized value. The objective can’t be accomplished without all of them.
  • You acknowledge that your colleague is a fellow human, with human challenges in juggling life, work, family, money, health, and so on. You act with empathy. The kind of empathy where you stop and attempt to walk in the other person’s shoes before making assumptions or judgments. It’s easy to only consider our own pressures and not recognize that what our colleague is facing is completely different.
  • When you expand your empathy and collaboration, you look at what is “fair” differently. You become more willing to share the spoils across the team.

Take, for example, the difference in life situations of a white-collar professional manager and an individual who reports to them. The manager likely has more flexibility in navigating their workday to deal with kids and non-work obligations. When school calls to say their child’s class has been put in quarantine, they can adjust. The direct report, with a child in the same classroom, may have no flexibility.

The direct report may need to work multiple jobs to make a reasonable living. Even though some employers have been forced to raise wages, inflation is eating that up. This juggling act compounds the stress.

Workers are deciding to leave because the stress, pay, and/or environment simply aren’t cutting it relative to the other demands. Between the cost and availability of child care, inflation, and pandemic stress, the scale readily tips. It becomes a “lose-lose” rather than opening up to find the “win-win.”

You can see why colleagues may take exception to the CEO getting significantly bonuses and compensation while the workforce is expected to take pay cuts or go without increases. The most recent public example of this hypocrisy was made clear when Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos thanked his workers for making his trip to outer space a reality!

This may inspire you to compensate colleagues at superior rates compared to market in order to employ a high-retention strategy and recognize their contributions and need for better working conditions, compensation, and benefits.

Yes, it will compress margins. But if you can maintain reasonable profitability and cash flow even after these increased costs, it may pay off in the long run with greater efficiencies, less turnover and churn, and better service to customers. This, of course, may not be possible for low-margin companies that are already hanging on by a thread.

In fact, it may be a saving grace, because you have a team that is working alongside you rather than co-workers bugging out on you, crippling your very ability to operate.

Many businesses are facing closure due to the lack of workers, not lack of demand for their products or services. A colleague recently shared with me about a trip to McDonald’s, where the drive-thru line was so long they decided to go inside. The place looked like a bomb had gone off and there was nobody working the counter. Eventually, the fried and apologetic manager came up to serve them. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I only have five employees left.” He meant in total — not just on his shift.

The labor force is speaking with their feet. Workplaces would do well to listen — with open minds, hearts, and willingness. Is it hard? Yes, it can be, because it’s not how we have been conditioned to think about the employment relationship and the economics of our companies. But something must change. We must work with each other, not merely employ.

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