Sept. 29, 2014 – My father-in-law is 81. It’s been over a quarter of a century since he retired from Goodyear, but every year he still attends the company golf tournament, and he keeps connected with many of his former colleagues. The bulk of his career was in the time where people spent their whole working life with a single company, and where there was a reciprocated loyalty between employer and employee. (I still don’t dare to buy a different brand of tires because I know he would notice it right away, and in a small way, it would offend him.)
I entered the workforce at the beginning of the end of that era. As a field engineer for a large computer company, some of my co-workers were people who had been there for 30 or 40 years. During my second year there, one co-worker retired after 40-plus years, and the branch management arranged a small party to mark the event. His efforts were acknowledged in front of his peers, and he was given some bright luggage, along with all of our best wishes to start his retirement adventures.
Those were different times. Today, companies are different, employees are different, and the expectations are different. Many large corporations that were considered rock-solid for generations have completely disappeared because they couldn’t adapt to changing times or circumstances. Those that survive or thrive today do so because they adapt, but often the strategic and corporate structure changes they make result in direct and sudden consequence to many of their employees. Even the employees that survive the consolidation, reorganization, right-sizing, off-shoring or sub-contracting event are affected; their confidence in their employment has been shaken, as has their basic trust in their employer.
Workers today are certainly different than in my father’s day, or even my day for that matter. When I graduated, statistics were cited that suggested we should expect to change employment at least three times over the course of our career. Nowadays it seems that when people take a job, their attitude is that they’ll try it for a year or two to see if they like it, and then perhaps they’ll try something different. To some degree, I think this is just a reflection of a different generation in a different time; but I think it’s also a consequence of the fractured relationship between employers and employees in general. The trust has been broken.
Over the years, I have written a lot about vision; but this column is all about the other ingredient necessary for long-term success — values. A company’s relationship with its workforce should be as clear and obvious a reflection of its values as its financial results, environmental stewardship and commitment to customer satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of business will sometimes necessitate things that result in layoffs and job losses, but some companies seem to navigate through those times with far less impact on their people and their families than other companies.
In the last 30 years, I have spent a lot of time in many different manufacturing companies — large, medium and small. I can think of several companies in each category that have navigated through those times far better than most companies, with respect to causing a minimal disruptive effect to their workforce. They are intentional about keeping their people employed. It often takes creativity, sometimes courage, and always co-operation. Perhaps co-operation is the key; but co-operation is built on trust, and trust takes time to build.
It’s not a coincidence that those same companies — the ones that always seem to get through without breaking that relationship trust — are the ones that still enjoy that reciprocated loyalty. Their families drive the cars they help build, or use the brands they help produce. Their sons and daughters don’t just work there, they are proud to work there. The chatter at the coffee shop, or in the bowling lane, or at the company picnic, or the family barbecue, is never negative about the company. They are part of their company’s extended family, and the company is part of their life’s fabric. This cannot be accomplished as a strategy, tactic or policy; it can only be realized as a company value.
Times do change, but values don’t.
This column originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.