Use employees as a resource to make business succeed

July 27, 2009
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Today, we speak of human resources when we think of issues associated with employees. It wasn’t that long ago when such things were handled in the personnel department. The matters were less broad, because there were fewer regulations or it was all covered in the “contract” and was basically a record-keeping function. The perception of the relationship to the organization was much simpler. It just depended on whether you were the owner/manager or the employee. Were you the person who decided what to do or you were the “doer”?

The role of people in an organization (“the human resources”) has evolved. Enlightened organizations try to develop a team approach and everyone engages their skills to support organizational goals. All of our experiences focus on meeting the needs of the customer. Consequently, we have to treat people differently, and we have to change the environment. All is good — that is, while business is good.

Then we face a business climate where owners and managers are looking for any way they can to “save a buck.” The situation/culture often changes very rapidly. The expendable commodity often becomes the employee. Either employees are cut out of the organizational body like a disease, or they stay and become overworked until something has to give. Then they may be treated as if they are the problem.

The capital resources are still well maintained, because they might be needed in the not-too-distant future, or to look good to potential buyers. The financial resources are protected with even greater care than during good times. And so the stage seems to be set. With little effort, we move toward the “good old days.” Then management can scratch their head and say, “What happened to all those loyal employees we used to have?” The new workers just want as much as they can get, and care little for the impact on the company. Should this be a surprise?

Depending on your position in the organization, you may answer the question about organization roles quite differently, especially if the environment/financial picture is a difficult one. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve all heard the story about Lincoln Electric during the Depression. Every employee got a welding machine and hit the road to do sales. The company developed a highly lean culture of operating and were a very successful business for many years. It was a necessary team effort; it wasn’t done to be politically correct or a cutting-edge strategy.

You may say that was decades ago and couldn’t work today, but it can. Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was having a difficult time and dying a death by a thousand cuts. Algoma was purchased by Essar Steel, an Indian company that began making substantial investments in the mills and processes. The business was making progress but last year needed to lay off a couple thousand workers. They held off through the holidays and into January. Everyone recognized what the company was committing to. Employees even wrote the local paper, praising the company. The investments, combined with attitude changes from a work force that is historically set in a “just-get-by” mentality, the company is now truly customer focused and has become the low-cost producer, resulting in a number of worldwide contracts. The work force is now at full capacity and the reduced schedules and pay cuts are gone.

A company willing to look at the opportunities presented by tougher economics, keeping a true balance among all the resources and engaging “the troops” in a real way, can make employees the resource that will make the business a success over the long haul.

You might be surprised at what opportunities can come from today’s chaos.

Ardon Schambers is a principal with P3HR Consulting and Services LLC (www.p3hrcs.com). He was practice leader for human resources with Varnum Consulting following the founding of HumancO Resources, and prior to that, director of compensation, benefits and international HR for Steelcase Inc.

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