Why employee complaints are the best gifts to management

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

WHEN I was promoted to my first supervisory post in the early 1980s, after spending three years in several non-management functions in the human resource department of a unionized establishment, it dawned on me that I was destined to become a management guru. Well, at least that was the label given to me by my former boss, who was a long-time captain in the then Philippine Constabulary during the Martial Law years.

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Our dear captain was prone to telling everyone to “obey first, before you complain,” who appeared unmindful, if not clueless of what is known today as employee engagement and empowerment. He pressed me hard, many times sarcastically so that I could prove my value as his first line of defense against problem employees and employees with problems, who, for some wicked reasons, were instigated, if not passively supported, by the workers’ union to rally or fight for whatever cause, no matter how senseless such issues were sometimes.

Why not? After all, they were paying their monthly union dues. Common sense dictates that everyone’s opinion would always gravitate toward whatever provides his daily bread, assuming he doesn’t care about his independence.

This brings us to the oft-repeated question in the workplace: How would you treat employee issues that are brought forward to management? More than 30 years ago, our answer was dependent on whether the subject employee is a union member or not, and the issue is about a perceived violation of the terms and conditions of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

If the company is not unionized, employee issues are classified according to their nature – individual concern as opposed to the general interest of all employees. Usually, a specific employee’s concern is about
boss-subordinate relationship, like the former having an unusual toxic management style over a certain employee, but not to the rest who are similarly situated. On the other hand, issues that affect the general interest of the workers usually falls under what we call as political and economic terms of the CBA.

Today, it appears that such distinction has become irrelevant in this highly competitive world, fueled by the continued decline in union membership around the world, now estimated at a single-digit percentage of the total workforce.

Instead, many well-meaning employers and people managers are subscribing to the adage of treat-your-employees-well-so-they-can-treat-your-customers-well. This time-tested formula has been around since time immemorial and is often the basis of several interpretations by many successful corporate leaders, such as Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup, who said: “To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.”

Among others, next to support this view is Simon Sinek, a British-American motivational speaker and author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (2009), who said, “When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

By the same token, Stephen Covey (1932-2012) of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People fame, said, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”

But how would you treat your employees well? The best approach is to actively solicit their ideas, complaints and suggestions. We’ve heard it before. In the 1970s, at a time when Japan has clearly beaten the United States in economic prosperity, many organizations have taken their cues from some Japanese practices, such as Quality Circles and Kaizen Systems, which were reinvented with so many Western names to what is today known as Total Quality Management, Employee Involvement, Quality of Work Life, Lean Management, and so on and so forth.

Whatever labels we have on the table, the pattern has becomes clear – there’s a hidden fortune underneath every worker’s ideas or complaints. Ignore them and you’ll soon find a demoralized person influencing other workers, multiplying themselves to do invisible botched jobs that could turn customers away. If not, these same workers can go to other employers who are more than willing to respect their contributions and views.

I’m not saying that management should approve every employee complaint or accept his ideas right away. The only way to do this is to engage talented employees successfully and to hire equally talented managers and require them to maintain a work environment conducive to a proactive two-way communication process.

Remember, problem employees are created by problem managers. But not only that, if an organization has a well-structured system, great managers can attract, select and engage their best talent. If you have the best and the brightest set of workers, then you can set accurate, clear and mutually accepted expectations.

You can motivate and develop them according to your set standards, with every single employee talent released into a customer-focused performance, resulting in corporate profitability.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts on Elbonomics.

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