Hey Boss, stop encouraging me to work elsewhere

An employee revolution is underway and the ruling class in many organizations is oblivious. It’s not what you might think, with workers organizing into unions to demand more from management. It’s worse than that. Workers are communicating with each other and realizing there are opportunities for something better somewhere else. These workers are networking with managers and employees at other companies and being stolen away, taking their company knowledge, their experience and their training with them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But too many organizations are ignoring one of their greatest investments and resources because they simply refuse to engage with their employees. I wrote about a recent survey by the International Association of Business Communicators that said e-mail and intranets are still the top two methods for engaging employees. That’s not shocking or surprising, but it is disappointing. The old-style, one-way broadcasting of information will not suffice anymore.

People are now connected and engaged with so many others in so many ways. They have seen and felt the power of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. They have witnessed the importance of companies being transparent and communicating with customers. And they simply will not accept that as the norm in their personal lives and then return to a workplace in which only the top 2 percent of the leaders know what is happening or why it matters.

When I asked on Twitter about what technology people wanted their employers to use for communicating, I received a very frank answer from someone who is close to quitting their job, if they haven’t already by now. In a private message to me they wrote:

The technologies that I wish more employers would use in communication are: compassion, honesty, directness.

If you think that Twitter friend and I are just venting, think again. According to the 2010 Deloitte LLP Ethics & Workplace Survey:

One-third of employed Americans plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better. Of this group of respondents, 48 percent cite a loss of trust in their employer and 46 percent say that a lack of transparent communication from their company’s leadership are their reasons for looking for new employment at the end of the recession.

People are fed up with employers investing in technology, in bricks and mortar and in new products but choosing to simply take their employees for granted.

Arik Hanson

I had a great conversation with Arik Hanson from Minneapolis recently. Arik used to work for a large employer but now runs his own public relations business. When I mentioned that he’d escaped the 9 to 5 world, he jokingly replied, “Yeah, I traded it for the 24/7 world.” While that’s true, his next statement explains why he did it. “But I’m happy.”

Arik and I agree on a lot of things, one of them being that the “need to know basis” management style is ridiculously outdated and seriously impairing employee retention.

I think we should expect more of our leaders. They ask employees to change all the time. Why can’ they change their leadership styles? Too many organizations hide behind regulations and ‘big organizations are slow to change.’

Arik is absolutely right. I recently read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of Zappos. It’s a great read although I’ll warn you that, depending on your situation, it can be simultaneously inspiring and depressing. Hsieh spends a lot of time talking about the culture at Zappos and how the employees are part of a family. That means more than most bosses realize. I also recently heard an interview with Lt. Col. Gregory Reeder, director of the U.S. Marine Corps’ internal communications, about how the Marines are coping with social media. One of the most interesting things he said was when he talked about how young men going through Boot Camp and becoming Marines also are becoming part of a family because of their shared experiences. Col. Reeder noted that, like with any family, you can complain about the family, or you can talk bad about the family business, but only within the family. You don’t talk that way with outsiders. That’s why, he said, the Marine Corps isn’t as worried about what Marines might say on social networking channels as many companies are about their employees.

I’ve counseled many people on the use of social media by companies and I often have to remind them that if a company is worried about what its employees are going to say on social media outlets, that is not a social media problem. They have a much broader and deeper issue facing them. Arik noted that in the IABC survey, “Publishing a formal list of values and using exit interviews with managers are the top practices of survey respondents to sustain an engaging work culture.” We both laughed about that, but not because it was funny. We laughed because it is so sad. As Arik said:

Publishing a list of values as a way to engage employees is just window dressing. Just posting that somewhere on the intranet is not nearly enough. You need to show that in action.

And relying on exit interviews to find out how your company is doing on engaging with employees? What kind of backwards management tool is that? If you wait for an exit interview to engage with an employee, you are going to end up with a line of people waiting to do exit interviews.

Employers need to get a grip on this soon. As the reach of social networking continues to grow, employees are going to be even less inclined to put up with the typical morale killers at work. It’s always been a fact that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. The difference now is that social media and professional networking are giving a lot of people a boost to see over that fence more than ever. Arik summed it up by saying: “What motivates people now is much different from what motivated people 20 years ago.” I agree, but I’d be inclined to suggest that what motivates people today is different from what it was two years ago. And in the next year or two, if companies don’t start engaging with their employees, those employees will be engaging with someone else.

(Photos courtesy of Arik Hanson and 4nitsirk’s Flickr photostream.)