companies communicate with their employees, explicitly and implicitly,
is crucial to employee engagement. While employee engagement is
considered a "soft" consideration in many workplaces, in a
customer-service industry it is directly tied to financial
considerations. So how do companies communicate with employees, when is
it effective, and why or why not?
Symbolic Action and Dissonance
I frequent a couple of national coffee chains for my daily latte. One
chain, let's call them "Green Coffee" has a good product, and excellent
staff. No matter how long the line, I can get in and out in under ten
minutes, and my embarrassingly complex order is always delivered
correctly. The employees are relaxed and friendly, and they're diverse in age, race, and personality.
I frequent "Red Coffee". While I like the coffee better, the employees, who are less diverse, are disengaged. Sometimes
they're friendly, sometimes not, and my order is frequently messed up (even when I'm
the only customer). They generally seem more interested in talking
to each other than to me.
websites for the two companies, I notice an immediate difference on the
employment page. While Red has the standard boilerplate about "putting
people first" and competitive pay and benefits, Green has personal
testimonials, documentation of fairly advanced training for the food
service industry, and itemized available benefits including retirement
and insurance for employees who work twenty hours a week or more.
this I surmise that leadership at Green Coffee wants to present the
employees are valued. However, while many companies present themselves
this way sometimes impressions and reality diverge. Organizations that talk a good game about employee appreciation and
investment don't always demonstrate those values, where less flamboyant
companies may have values that dictate good employee/organization
For example, I have a relative who works for a national retail chain that has its home
office in the Southwest. The temperature in her store (on the west
coast) is regulated from the home office, so it's often out of sync
with the weather outside. If it's 95 degrees at headquarters and the AC
is cranked way up, customers and employees may be freezing in the store on the west coast
where it's only 75 degrees outside. Corporate does not allow store
managers to adjust the temperature in their own stores. So while the company's
website details extensive career development and benefits available to
employees, the appearance of employee value does not align with how they are treated. The organization does not demonstrate trust in employees, so it is unlikely that the employees trust the organization.
Green Coffee talks a good
game, and the values they espouse seem to be active in the
organization. Key indicators are the fact that they provide useful
training and benefits for employees. In turn, employees seem engaged
and relaxed, and provide the company with good customer relationships. These indicators are symbolic actions
- ways organizations and employees act out their values, regardless of external PR or internal propaganda.
day when I was at Red Coffee the employee who took my order was
discussing company policy with his co-worker. It seems company had
issued a new list of employee edicts, including one
where employees were only allowed to come in through the front door
(the side door is far more convenient for cafe employees). Without
knowing why the company issued this restriction, it was clear that the
employee found it frustrating.
For me, this revelation made perfect sense. Regardless of what the employer said
about their value for employees, their actions indicate (at least to
this particular employee) that they don't trust them. If I were
to translate this action into a statement, it would say, "I (the
company) do not trust you (the employee) to make basic decisions about
how to behave around customers, so I will dictate how you should
behave." As an employee, I would feel that my individual value to the
organization was negligible.
it a surprise that Red Coffee
employees don't seem to take pride in their work? Company policies
towards employees communicate far more about their value than employee
value statements, or titles like "partner"
or "team member".
I suspect Green Coffee's
employees seem happy and engaged because there is little conflict
between what the company says about how they treat employees and how
they actually treat them. This translates very directly into satisfied repeat customers and revenue.
Putting it to Work
Do your company's values align with the policies in practice regarding
employees? If you cite respect and honesty as core values, but monitor
employees' every move, you're creating dissonance
(conscious or unconscious discomfort with the contradiction between statements and actions) that affects the
quality of work. If your stated values were instead consistency and
quality, then close monitoring may be more appropriate. It is this dissonance
between words and actions that can cause problems like employee disengagement, low productivity, and high turnover.
your organization, like a coffee shop, relies on consistent, attentive
customer service for its revenue stream, then this internal dissonance
may also create discomfort for the customer. Imagine taking you kids to
Disneyland and being ignored by grumpy, disengaged employees. The
slogan "The Happiest Place on Earth" would become a parody, rather than
a promise. Consider then that your employees represent the values you
communicate to them to your customers.
Here are some suggestions to help you craft appropriate employee policies:
- Be Consistent
you have a company vision and values statement, check it against your
employee policies and see if they contradict each other. If so,
consider changing policies to reflect company values, or even revising
your values statement if it is outdated or underdeveloped.
- Be Authentic
you haven't developed a values statement, spend some time considering
what values your company demonstrates, and how they inform
employee decisions. This will help you
recognize if policy and values begin to diverge. Core values are a map of your company's DNA - they should inform how you treat customers and employees.
- Look at the Big Picture
the long term impact of short term decisions. When times are tight and
cutbacks are necessary, don't be caught unaware when layoffs lower
employee morale, productivity, and commitment. Remember the power of
symbolic actions, and find ways to mitigate the negative impact of
difficult decisions, or risk losing the benefit of short term gains to