Businesses must rethink future use of employees

January 25, 2010
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Recently, a survey was published that said 55 percent of employees are unhappy with their work environment, and that the number has been growing for the last 10 years.

Employers, let's be clear: Those employees are not talking about the office or shop temperature.

Short-term thinking seems to be the modus operandi of U.S. business. When it comes to employees, we become almost myopic. It is going to come back and bite us hard if we don't get some new ideas on the table that help the employee. After all, they are the company.

Yes, employees are a cost that impacts the bottom line, but it's more complicated than that. They are the most fluid, the most unpredictable and the most difficult business resource to manage. They are also the element that makes the business go and establishes which companies win and which lose.

With 15 percent unemployment in Michigan, the belief by most people is that there are plenty of labor resources available and will be for a number of years. However, another recent report shows more people are leaving the state than coming here. Many of these are our most talented. So you may want to give some thought to employee retention or development.

There are a number of aspects that ought to be considered while you ponder the employee issue.

First of all, do the people who make up that 15 percent have the skills you need? Will they be available when you need them? When you want to hire, others are also likely to be in that same mode, so competition will be more acute.

Don't forget that the baby boomers aren't getting younger. With the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, we can expect a large exodus from the work force in the next seven years. We also have to recognize we haven't gained any trust with the younger crowd. They don't trust management to look out for them and have learned they must look out for themselves. So, the bright and daring ones will take the risk and work for themselves a lot more quickly than prior generations.

So what are those new ideas? Let's start with the bright young entrepreneurs.

Instead of losing all that talent, why not work with them? Help them establish their company. Let them have one foot in the camp and one outside. You may cut your expenses and wages and still have access to their talent and make great headway on your goals by gaining a partner instead of losing a critical employee. You've also turned an expense into an investment. How many things can you outsource to employees instead of downsizing and outsourcing them?

Options for baby boomers can also be added to the table. They are often the most costly employees because they have been around a while. To maximize their value, you don't have to have them work 40 hours or more each week. Shift some of their time to up-and-coming staff who are paid less. The reduced hours will have some appeal to many older employees, and it gets them thinking about how will they manage their time when they retire. Reduce their pay but apply a portion to a medical care plan that takes them from retirement to age 65 — less cost to the company and security to the employee. Maybe you can establish an independent contractor relationship with certain individuals. (Be careful of the regulations, but it can be done.)

Now take a look at positions that become open. Don't automatically fill them. These are the easiest positions to eliminate if you need to. Utilize an interim assessor to actually do this job who is not an employee. Besides doing the work, give them six weeks to determine how it can be done better or in less time, and what kind of skills actually are needed if it is to continue. You might even have this done for select positions where you would like to reposition an employee but you don't have a backup identified. An interim assessor might be a good option when an opening occurs in a category of jobs such as inventory clerks. If you have 10, perhaps the report from the assessor might determine how each job can be redefined 10 percent so the end result is one less job.

Restructuring jobs in the factory is often done by industrial engineers, but office positions tend to be overlooked, except in substantial downsizings — then we use a meat axe approach instead of a scalpel.

Add some incentive for the employees. Let them tell you how to improve their job and take cost out or increase productivity. Don't cut their wages if they can do the job in less time; add better or more interesting work to their load. That may be the opportunity they have been waiting for. Increase their wages when they have changed their job to 20 percent more important or demanding work.

Putting initiatives on the table and letting employees know there can be a difference in their work lives may be the change that shapes their attitude, improves the effectiveness of company practices, improves retention and revamps the culture. Most importantly, be clear in your intentions and communications when rethinking employees, and stay on message.

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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