It’s a challenging time. Political divisiveness is rife. Economic gaps get wider. And now, the world is on edge over the health and economic impact of a new virus. It’s clear to me that employers must become the trusted entity in peoples’ lives, in addition to the source of earnings, career and job fulfillment. Any company that fails to do this will lose top people, lose top customers and fail to achieve its financial goals.
When employees feel a sense of trust and humanity at work, they translate this into new products, innovative ideas, amazing customer service and high degrees of resilience. If there is an economic slowdown and companies have to reduce costs, employees who are treated well will understand and pitch in. Those who feel ignored or slighted will leave, making the business situation worse.
I’ve always been a fan of putting employees first because they are the most important asset companies really have. I had a long meeting with an HR executive who worked for an Asian bank. The HR leader told me the company was having a hard time keeping employees on the same customer accounts because employees wanted to be promoted to new jobs. Certainly, this was understandable from the employees’ perspective, but the constant churn made customers unhappy. I asked her if the company had thought about incenting employees to remain on the same accounts longer. I told her to think about employees as a top product: they (and their service) are actually what your customers are buying. A light bulb went on in her head. She suddenly realized that employee relationships were paramount to customer retention, and consequently, it urgently needed to revamp so its entire reward system.
People are the only asset in a company that appreciates over time. The longer employees work for you, the deeper their skills, the better they understand the products and services and the more relationships they have within the company. I wish more CEOs thought this way. To me, it’s the secret to success. And by the way, I’m still not sure why wages are treated as an expense; they are investments.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to sit in on a session conducted by the head researcher for the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. She spent almost two hours telling us the scientific findings on what creates happiness—things like kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, social relationships, mindfulness and awe. How many of you have these words in your corporate competency models or leadership models? I would bet very few.
This is my point. In today’s world, where almost two thirds of citizens don’t trust public institutions, we as employers have the responsibility to create a truly human place to work. This means giving people meaningful jobs, clarifying their goals, forgiving them when they make mistakes and practicing kindness and generosity at work. It does not mean rating and ranking them against each other, deciding who does and does not get into the high-potential list or segmenting people into high or low performers based on their past.
This entails creating a sense of trust among leadership and HR. For example:
- Do you collect data about your employees? Do they know what you collect and what you plan to do with it? Do you have governance and protection about employee data? Do you audit, test and train your AI-based systems?
- Are you clear and focused on gender and generational pay equity? Do you monitor bias in promotion, pay and job assignments? Do you have a whistleblower system that lets people speak up when they see ethical or safety issues?
- Are your leaders walking the talk? Do you have the courage to speak up to them when you see them reward behaviors that are inconsistent with your values?
- Do you have a real wellbeing program at work—one in which employees feel valued and can spend enough time on their jobs without distraction? Where health and mindfulness is embedded into the workplace?
- Are you investing in the development, career and growth of all your people? If you do have an economic downturn, where will the cuts be and why?
The year ahead will be one of slowing growth, lots of political and economic uncertainty and anxiety for workers. Yes, we have much to do to address current and upcoming challenges. Reskilling should take a top priority, but you need to do it in a deliberate and strategic way. Make sure employee experience is part of everything you do and maintain a laser-like focus on simplification and productivity. Technology should simplify employee work, not make it more complicated.
But above all, focus on trust, kindness, forgiveness and generosity. We, as HR professionals, have to be the conscience and ombudsman for the company. It’s our responsibility to make sure business leaders invest in people, live up to their strong ideals and create an environment where every individual can thrive.