Are They Employees or Widgets? The Results of People-as-Commodity Cultures

Newsflash: People aren’t possessions. So why do we insist on treating workers like commodities?

Once upon a time, employees and companies enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Workers stayed with one company for their entire careers, taking pride in their output and putting their noses to the grindstone for the sake of the organization. In return, companies offered pension plans, training, development opportunities, and reasonable work hours.

While those days might seem like distant memories, the churn-and-burn mentality of the modern workplace isn’t sustainable.

Corporate leaders shrug their shoulders when confronted with the fact that employees stay at companies for only 4.2 years, on average. Baby Boomers might have been willing to work dead-end positions for 10 years, but what happens when hundreds of thousands of Boomers retire? Suddenly, Millennials become the bread and butter of corporate America. Considering that the same report found that 25 percent of Millennials would quit their jobs in a heartbeat, the simmering situation is primed to boil over into a full-blown crisis.

Many companies are guilty of living in the moment rather than planning ahead. It results in a roller coaster for workers: When business is booming, companies reward workers and treat them handsomely; when downturns inevitably strike, the benefits and perks are replaced with layoffs and attrition. Most companies are oblivious to the ripple effect caused by this sort of bottom-line thinking.

Reaping What You Sow

Your people represent your business to customers. If they’re suffering at your hands, how can they create and foster lasting client relationships? Prospects aren’t stupid. High turnover is a huge turnoff.

Companies that don’t value employees tend to be less productive with lower job satisfaction figures. Employees who feel dissatisfied with their supervisors also tend to embrace an attitude of disengagement. The only notable increase in these unhealthy workplaces comes in the form of higher absenteeism. These outcomes quickly have a negative effect on profit margins, sales, product quality, and innovation.

Need another reason to change how you treat employees? You can expect to spend about 150 percent of every mid-level worker’s salary to recruit and hire a replacement. While you’re recruiting a new hire, work can’t get done, sales won’t go through, and customers won’t feel acknowledged. Your organization will be at a standstill.

When managers view workers as commodities instead of human beings, they become expendable. Have a problem with an employee’s productivity or behavior? Get rid of him. When a manager doesn’t “get it,” push the low performer into a different department and hire someone new. This sends a clear message to team members: Shape up or ship out. The excuse is that coaching, developing, and mentoring take too much time and capital — but it will cost you more in the long term.

Millennials are choosing to ship out in droves rather than be treated as chattel. After decades of positive reinforcement, these young workers would rather go it alone than feel stuck working for a company that doesn’t value them.

Many Millennials are giving traditional business the heave-ho and founding their own companies. They’re reinventing the wheel in their own images and achieving serious success. They’ve learned that they might need to start from scratch if they hope to out-perform their parents.

Companies must change the way they value their human resources or risk losing top talent. It’s time to acknowledge that common employee demands might not be unreasonable. Workers who want to spend only 40 hours a week in the office, demand to be treated with respect, actively seek out faster promotions, and crave more responsibility are not the exception to the rule — they’re the new normal.

5 Ways to Reorient Your Thinking

Changing workplace culture isn’t an overnight process. It requires a lot of time, energy, and dedication, but it’s not impossible as long as you commit to making the change stick. Here are a few steps to start viewing your colleagues as people instead of possessions:

  1. Think strategically about engaging Millennials. Your team probably spans several generations, but the biggest group of up-and-comers is Millennials. You’ll need to get creative to promote engagement with this crowd.

    BrewDog in the United Kingdom provides a fascinating yet extreme example. The company’s policy regarding puppy parental leave drew a lot of interest — and some criticism — for what seemed to be one of the oddest organizational perks: BrewDog employees can take one week of paid leave for the adoption or purchase of a new pup. I wouldn’t advocate for every company to offer its employees puppy parental leave, but this example shows imagination on the part of BrewDog’s executive team, as well as an understanding of what resonates with its employees and brand.

    Paid leave for pet adoptions is probably far-fetched (pun intended) for most companies, but you can start with something as simple as ditching tired tropes like yearly performance reviews. About 42 percent of Millennials are interested in getting feedback on a weekly basis instead of waiting 365 days for an evaluation. Take a tip from Google, which uses a process called objectives and key results to keep employees engaged and productive through regular assessments.

  2. Offer the possibility of job rotations. Numerous successful CEOs started by filling multiple C-suite roles. This experience served them well when they reached the pinnacle of their corporate careers. Encourage this sort of job rotation at your company to build a challenging environment for employees who crave variety and self-driven education.
  3. Devise unique compensation models. Have you noticed how creative some positions sound? Companies are choosing innovator monikers rather than sticking to tried-and-true titles. Bloggers have become social curators. Receptionists are directors of first impressions. Project managers have morphed into project meanies.

    Why? It’s a means of rewarding people for their individuality and contributions. It also gives your organization the ability to structure rewards like nominal raises and promotions in ways that won’t break the bank. You could create a level-based system for positions, with a level-two social curator making slightly more money than a level-one version. As long as you meet legal limits, you can set up these sorts of perks any way you want. It ensures your employees feel like the unique, beautiful snowflakes they are.

  4. Provide low-cost benefits focused on work-life balance. People love having time away from work. They’re perfectly willing to work extra hours one week in exchange for an extra day off, tackle tasks from the comfort of their own homes, or embrace flex time to create a schedule that meets their needs. As long as the work is getting done, who cares how it happens?

    My wife still grieves the loss of a concept known as “Summer Fridays” she enjoyed at a previous job. Employees can work late during the week in exchange for working a half day on Friday; they can also pool those half days to enjoy a full day off every other week. It’s a completely free benefit for companies, but it ends up making employees much more productive during the week. People want to get their work done as efficiently as possible so they can start their weekend a little sooner.

  5. Train managers to be “intrapreneurs.” The intrapreneur movement is gaining ground — possibly because three-fourths of Millennials crave on-the-job leadership development. Get on top of this trend by allowing managers to give their direct reports whatever they need to be successful.

    Too many companies force managers to do too many jobs simultaneously, which doesn’t leave time for managing, mentoring, or developing talent. Instead, give them the time they need to create a startup culture in each department. It will foster a fast-paced, innovative, engaging environment, and folks will thrive. Set the tone, and let your employees overcome obstacles as teams.

Take a walk around your office. See all those people working diligently at their desks? They’re human beings with lives outside of their cubicle walls. The faster we stop thinking of employees as minions to bend to our whim under the threat of termination, the sooner we can reap the benefits of a fully engaged, energized workforce. Start viewing your people as, you know, people, and your company will be all the better for it.


Have you read?

Apply a Military Mindset to Make Your Business Less Fragile” by Bradford Blevins, Managing Partner at GothamCulture.

Written by: Brett Morgan, senior associate at the gothamCulture, a management consulting firm based in New York, United States.

Brett Morgan

Brett MorganVerified account

Senior associate at GothamCulture
Brett Morgan is a senior associate at gothamCulture. He has more than 15 years of leadership and learning development experience with a strategic focus on achieving learning objectives.
Brett Morgan

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