I once worked for a company where, on a night of heavy celebration following some or other departmental feat (yes, it involved free flow of alcoholic beverages), I was offered a more senior position by my manager. I’d told him that I wanted to mull it over but accepted the next day. Returning to work that Monday, I was told by my HR manager that unfortunately we’d not followed the correct route and that the job spec had not even been finalised.

A few days later I received the job spec and was told (rather too smugly) I could apply if I qualified for the position. Of course I didn’t qualify – it was early days in my career, and I was still working towards my degree so it goes without saying that I didn’t apply. Though I was somewhat upset at my manager for the slight, my biggest issue was the way the company, and its HR manager, had (mis)managed the situation.

It was a mortifying experience, but I suppose one needs to go through a few mortifying experiences in your career in order to understand the industry and set down ground rules and non-negotiables for your personal career path.

Why most companies are their own worst enemies

Sadly, this is not the only example of the way companies can tarnish reputations from the inside out. They tend to forget that their foremost brand ambassadors are their staff members and that the nature of communication nowadays is so dynamic, messages about your brand and company culture can spread like wildfire.

Whether through mismanagement, ill treatment of employees or customers, lack of strategy, inefficient benefits or outlandish rules and regulations – there’s a lot you need to look at if you want to ensure your company’s reputation remains in the clear…

10 Rules for a solid workforce and company reputation

1. HR – the frontline of employee interaction

The list of HR atrocities I have in my little black ledger book is astounding. Some of the examples I have of inappropriate HR conduct are my own, others I’ve noted from interactions with friends and acquaintances. I have made mental notes of companies I don’t want to work for, and hardly reconsider.

The thing companies seem to forget is that their HR practitioners are essentially not only administrators but in-house union representatives. A good practitioner will save the boss from himself. Remember that there’s more than enough legislation in place to safeguard companies from misbehaving employees – what you need is someone who will be the voice of the people. Someone who employees feel safe to share with, come to in time of need and approach for negotiation. HR is not a one-way street for imposing regulations – it’s a resource for humans.

Accounting Weekly notes one of the 9 crucial skills of a good HR practitioner is being the ‘conscience of the company’. They need to be trusted and maintain confidence with employees through honest and open communication. In addition to the trust factor, Human Resource managers should also have the capacity and diplomacy to take employee issues to department heads without landing them in trouble. Inexperienced practitioners tend to act like intern psychologists, listening to employee issues without doing something about it. HumanResources.about states that HR practitioners should not become too hardened by employee complaints as this will essentially hamper the business.

The conclusion? Appoint an HR practitioner with a deep understanding of people – their emotions, skills and capacities. The right HR practitioner will be a thought and change leader with an unquenchable lust for equality and fairness. This person has a perfect grasp of client service and crisis control and understand that the right course of action is swift, transparent and empathetic. It’s a person who has an inherent empathy and understands individuals in each step of their life’s journey and career path, but also has a sound grasp of the business and is included in your business strategy meetings. This is a crucial point – because HR departments often fail because they are not privy to managerial or strategic decisions. Be sure to empower your HR practitioners to empower others.

2. Trust garners trust – are you overregulating your employees?

There seems to be this unwritten rule in the world which places trust in a one-way street – something to be sought out and earned by those in diminutive roles if they want to be trusted in return. Respect for managers should be a given – it’s something which employees should offer up naturally as subordinates.

This is utter bollocks of course. According to the Neuroscience Institute, it’s this lack of trust in people which could be the greatest cause for them disrespecting you and behaving in an untrustworthy manner. It has to do with this little hormone called oxytocin – also called the trust hormone. This hormone is produced during labour and breastfeeding to help a mother bond with her baby, and also during sex – helping couples bond with each other. But that’s not the only time it’s produced by the body.

An experiment by the University of California, called the ‘Trust Game’, found that when participants felt they were trusted, their brains responded by producing oxytocin. As the trust given to them increased, so too the levels of oxytocin in their brains increased. The result of this hormonal increase produced more trustworthy behaviour. On the other hand, when participants (mostly males) felt distrusted, levels of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) rose. DHT produces an increased desire for physical confrontation and aggression.

The conclusion is obvious, of course – you need to trust your employees. Give them more responsibilities, stop micromanaging them and keep out of their personal lives. Whether you stop checking your employee clock-in times, cease your access control which keeps them out of certain office areas, be transparent when you are unsure about something or have made an error or allow them free reign on social media which will allow them to be brand advocates. Start off small and you’ll find the trust and responsibility in your company grow exponentially.

3. Leadership pitfalls – it’s not about his/her credentials

One of the greatest men I’ve ever worked for who had little formal training – at least none that anyone in the office was aware of – yet had advanced through industries and up the company tier almost effortlessly. Although I haven’t seen him in years and we now find ourselves on different sides of the world, we still keep regular contact. Without this manager, I would probably have doubted that there are leaders out there who can lead by example – I have found few.

What made him such a strong leader was his empathy. He was humble, thoughtful, slow to anger and took time out of his schedule to meet me for coffee once a week for the three years I worked for him. He had a preternatural capacity for defusing volatile situations – one could say that he pre-empted them and steered people onto calmer seas before they were even aware of any waves. He harnessed my innate tendency for rebellion and problem-finding by assigning tasks to me, which allowed me to seek out problems in our department and advise on possible solutions. And he did this for every person in his employ.

But this isn’t your average manager, is it? No, your average manager is someone with an MBA who probably has too many chips on his shoulders to see past his pedestal to the employees below him. Companies seem to be so concerned with seeking managerial applicants with the right credentials that they fail grossly at finding managers with the right people skills. Make sure that the leaders in your company are geared to lead and not just to rule. This is not something which comes natural to everyone, but there are ways of developing people’s strengths to make them better employees and better leaders.

Business Insider in their article, Companies Are Hiring Based on Personality Instead of Experience, makes the point that skills and experience can be taught while personalities remain unchanged. Employing managers who are therefore passionate about people and adept at dealing with conflict would be a better decision than hiring the executive with the impressive resume who sucks at managing your workforce.

4. Room for growth – on knowledge and skills application

When I started off in the business I had no formal training at all. I was completely wet behind the ears, and perhaps a bit naïve of my own skills and abilities. Natural talent goes a long way to landing you that job, but it will not open many doors for you – especially if you find yourself in one company for a few years.

The problem is not necessarily training and educating your staff, but allowing them to apply what they have learned. After finishing my degree and completing several courses and diplomas across the board in the creative industry, I’ve found that my book smarts is relatively useless without the capacity and resources to practice what I’ve learned.

Analyst estimates, for instance, state that the Fortune 500 companies lose a combined $31.5 billion per year due to employees failing to share knowledge effectively. Julie Winkle Giulioni, author of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want, postulates that companies simply don’t take the time and effort to transform development into useful learning and integrate this learning into the existing role of responsibilities.

Many companies are so concerned with getting the numbers right – ensuring training for employees to improve their BBBEE or EE ratings through upskilling that they forget to give these employees the tools and platforms to actually grow their new skills. Employees are graduated but still only entrusted with their former duties or judged on past inabilities.

We once had a manager who, for instance, made us write regular product knowledge tests. At first, everyone was vehemently opposed to these tests – believing it to be a ploy to catch us off guard or humiliate us. As the weeks progressed, we realised that these tests were actually a way for us to prove to our manager that we were advancing and growing, and subsequently earned us greater responsibilities. If I think back to my writing as a newbie copywriter, I want to cringe at some of the blatant grammatical, formatting and typographical errors. But I am still learning, still growing, and I strongly believe that companies would get much more value from their workforce by facilitating their growth. You should believe that your people can progress past their former selves, or you will inevitably end up with a bunch of highly-educated duds.

5. What hierarchies tell outsiders and insiders about your company

The strangest imposition of hierarchies I have seen at a company yet, is the allocation of access cards which could only allow you access to certain floors. Quite predictably, the lowest class of employee was situated on the first floor, with executives placed on the top floor. This lead to some comical and frustrating situations where employees would be stuck in stairwells – having forgotten their access cards.

This ties in with the issue of trust mentioned above. Employees on lower ‘tiers’ were thought to be untrustworthy and, of course, perpetuated this perception. Strangely, no one in the company seemed to wonder why the employee turnover seemed to increase proportionately with a decent down the company ladder.

It is, of course, necessary to offer executives and senior role-players certain privileges. You can draw in a top class of employee by giving them something which is exclusive. With greater power comes greater responsibility, after all – but office hierarchies should be constructed strategically to benefit everyone. That means you should allow your managers more-decision making power based on their roles, and offer certain incentives to them for these roles, but that you should offer similar incentives and autonomy relevant to their roles to individuals on lower levels. An article in the Harvard Business Review took a look at several companies with non-hierarchical structures and examined the benefits of such structures. The findings proved that non-hierarchical structures greatly benefited businesses and, moreover, that it was possible for companies to change their hierarchies without negative drawbacks.

Remember that your employees in less ‘crucial’ roles may one day work themselves into management positions at your firm, or they may know people who would be suited to those roles. What these employees and their acquaintances see is an imbalanced distribution of power and rewards. A democratic company will still have a structure, but will rely on cooperation which inadvertently strengthens the workforce and makes them feel more responsible for the future of the company.

6. The transparency issue – why honesty is your greatest virtue

Office gossip is entertaining, no doubt about that. And although office gossip could include a wide range of topics, managers are usually unaware that most of the gossip is not about personal lives or office romances – what employees discuss most in these informal chit-chats are the decisions, strategies and structures within the company.

Office politics is not something which is easy to manage, but there is an easy way to nip those rumours in the bud – being transparent. Friction and discord within companies stems most often from a lack of mutual trust and employee insecurity. And although managers often want to blame their employees for this discord, the fact remains that it’s most often their own lack of transparency which fuels these fires.

The absolute best way to induce widespread panic and employee dissatisfaction is a lack of direction. Too many companies subscribe to a need-to-know culture where employees are left in the dark as to the direction of the company, office restructures and business performance. A study by Tiny Pulse found that the no. 1 trend disrupting workforces is a lack of transparency. By not keeping your employees in the loop, involving them in decision-making or guiding them along on a collective company journey, companies are essentially alienating staff.

Though many business leaders believe that transparency could cause their employees more discord, this is not the case. Professor of Business Ethics, James O’Toole, and organisational consultant, Warren Bennis, wrote an article A Culture of Candor where they state that the greatest reason for opposing transparency is that it goes against the grain of group behaviour and human nature. It ties in with the topic of hierarchies – group leaders want to control information because it is a source of power and a prerequisite of power. They are right on the first part, but not in the way they think. Information is definitely a source of power, but it can strengthen a company only if it is freely shared.

7. Engage, empower and reward

This is a bit of a no-brainer, but companies should offer incentives to drive growth and innovation outside the normal cost to company. But – and there is always a but – make sure to use the right incentive programmes for your company.

I’ve watched incentive programmes crash and burn fairly often – leading to managers and businesses scrapping any thought of such programmes indefinitely. What makes most of these programmes fail is usually one of four things:

  1. A lack of engagement by upper management.
  2. A lack of resources for employees to participate.
  3. Ill-aligned incentives
  4. Impractical measuring and performance appraisal

Firstly, if you want your programme to work, there needs to be unquestionable buy-in from upper management and executives. These programmes need to be driven from the top down and employees need to know that those in charge of their careers are engaged in their progress and truly recognise their contributions. VP of business development for O.C.T Tanner Co., Michelle Smith, states that companies should realise recognition programmes offer demonstrable return on investment and simply makes sense in business.

Secondly, you can’t really expect employees to excel if you don’t give them the resources to do so. This includes allocating time for innovation, personal growth and participation in recognition programmes. One of the greatest hurdles for employees in participating in such initiatives is the fact that they may not have the knowledge, skills or resources to actually research or implement their ideas. They aren’t given the tools to manage such projects, and as a result companies often find that it’s those who are already skilled or already have the tools for such projects who excel and ‘prove their worth. In fact, a survey by employee engagement experts, David Sturt and Jordan Rogers, found that more than half the employees in lower ranks felt they didn’t have the access to execute meaningful ideas in their companies.

Josh Bersin, leading research-based information, benchmarking, talent management and strategic HR consultant, presented research findings that companies ranked in the top 20% of recognition-rich culture had 31% lower voluntary attrition rates. But a recognition programme is of no use if the benefits aren’t aligned with your employee needs. According to the Entrepreneur, Companies who don’t match or exceed benefit levels of their competitors will fail at engaging or retaining their employees.

The most important part of your programme will probably not even cost you a cent – it’s simply sharing specific examples with your employees of where they have succeeded and excelled. Two other important types of rewards come in the form of monetary incentives and time – performance bonuses and time off will go a long way in ensuring your employees engage in your recognition scheme.

Lastly, there needs to be practical ways of measuring contributions and allocating rewards. This will depend on your company structure, industry and culture. Employees in different departments or positions can hardly be measured and rewarded in the same way. You need to actively engage with your incentive programme manager or stakeholders in developing measures in which individuals can be assessed – and you need to reward the tea lady in equal measure for innovation or progress in her line of work as the top exec who closed that uncloseable deal. Because at the end of the day, your company relies on all its ruts to work properly to excel.

8. Your community matters – do you really care?

Corporate Social Investment has become a buzz word across different industries. This business segment is obviously a great PR tool which many companies wave like a smug little flag to tell the world just how much money they’ve thrown at a problem.

But do you really care? And, of course, does it really matter to your employees?

Although I can’t answer the first question for you, the second is an undoubted (oh my gosh) YES! Michelle Motakhab, Vice President of People and Culture at Nutiva, states that employees – and millennials in particular – grew up in a world they were told was ‘falling apart’, and that most of these people want to work at a place which addresses these issues. Employees want to know that they are contributing to something greater and effecting change in the world around them through social and environmentally sustainable practices.

A global workforce study by Towers Perrin noted in Time found that the third most important driver for employee engagement is CSR and in the US, an organisation’s stature in the community was the second most important driver of employee engagement. This essentially means that you can’t just throw money at a problem, but that you need to relook your strategy to develop business practices and new market innovations which actively contribute to the upliftment of communities and drive conservation.

9. Let go the traditional office structure

One of the frustrations I’ve experienced as a creative who has worked across industries is the fact that most companies are reluctant to change with the times.

I’ve had a lucky shot in my current position – having found a company which allows me to function in a remote capacity. I wear what I want, manage my own outputs based on our strategy and have the freedom to rearrange my schedule and participate in my children’s lives as long as my deadlines are met. But this is not something many companies will even consider.

An article in Forbes noted that from 2005 to 2012 the telecommuting workforce in America had increased by approximately 80%. That is an incredible statistic. But is it feasible? Well, a study by Nicholas Bloom blasted companies’ fear of home-based workers not performing their duties to smithereens. The study found that at-home employees actually outperformed office-based workers, with an average of a whole extra work day of ‘productivity’ produced by these types of workers each week.

In a digital era, it’s no longer necessary to have traditional work structures and offices for companies to be successful. Moreover, satellite offices allow companies to employ rare skills by using resources and appointing employees from different parts of the world.

Flexible work environments also give employees greater work-life balance and subsequent greater job satisfaction. Studies have also found that these types of work environments reduce sick leave and contributes to talent retention – this in turn decreases expenditure on recruitment and training costs. Reallocating working hours for parents to tend their children’s extracurricular activities, or sports enthusiasts to take bike rides during normal office hours could lead to a happier workforce, higher outputs and save you time in the long run.

Additionally, with the world becoming increasingly ‘online’, customers also have the need for services which can be rendered outside normal working hours or in a remote capacity. Make sure that your working hours and regulations are really benefitting your company and not simply in place to make micromanagement easier or due to some archaic practices.

10. The fun factor – tapping into employee individuality

Who doesn’t want to have fun? The answer is most likely no one, but the trick about creating fun work environments is understanding what your employees actually see as fun.

Your idea of a little R&R may be visiting the driving range, or mayhaps you like to listen to a bit of Bach while you’re working, but this will not appeal to everyone. Fun work environments tap into those environmental and personal needs of individuals and creates spaces for employees to be themselves and let down their hair.

One of the corporate offices I worked at employed a man in HR who came to work dressed in what looked like his pyjamas. Though the office had an informal dress code and I, for one, found this individual highly intriguing, some more conservative fellows had taken offence at the employee’s odd fashion sense and even stranger behaviour, and he was subsequently laid off work. The unfortunate drawback for the company was that this employee had stored most of his work in his head – they lost months of work and thousands of Rands having to build a new data-warehouse from scratch.

This is not uncommon though – we judge books by their covers and expect employees to ‘have fun’ in a regulated way based on our personal preferences. But we need to consider which is more important – productivity or normative company values.

Interesting research conducted by the London Business School’s Daniel M. Cable, Harvard professor Francesca Gino and UNC’s Brad Staats which tested the correlation of employee individuality with job satisfaction and productivity. The study found that orientation which placed a premium on individuality increased retention by 47.2%, was 26.7% less prone to turnover and customers were more satisfied with these employees’ customer service than the group where individuality was disregarded.

No one person on earth is identical, and employers should understand – really understand – that the strongest workforce is one where individuals are empowered to bring those absolutely unique personalities and skills to the table. Allowing them to be who they are is the cheapest and most efficient way to improve productivity. It doesn’t cost you a cent.

What is ‘fun’ for Jane, for instance, may be taking her laptop to a little quite space where she can close the door and relax without the buzz of the open office. Jack, on the other hand, may want to play a bit of foosball while conceptualising his next marketing campaign. And Betty, well she’s a hardcore metalhead who likes to work with her headphones on full blast. What do they have in common? They all love their jobs, they feel they can be themselves and they are highly productive.

Of course, once you expand on this concept of fun and take your employee personalities into account, you will have to spend some money for team fun initiatives and gadgets. Get a punching bag which will bear the brunt of employee frustrations, get some office plants your employees can name, ‘move’ your office to coffee shops or the beach one day a week or month – there are so many things you can do to make employees engage.

Thanks for reading!

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