In any organization there are ideals that are offered as a way to meet or exceed the unwritten labour market standards that play a part in a perspective employee’s decision to pursue an employer. These items relate to the kind of work environment employees may expect and their career potential within the organization; these vary by geography, industry and organization size (among other things). Through the legacy of the “pre-bubble ‘90’s” these value propositions took a step up, a legacy employers live with today; it’s not enough to have an open position, you need to have a compelling reason why employees should come and work for your organization. These ideals comprise a part of your organization’s culture, they are informal, often communicated verbally, and have become the employer's way of branding the organization as an employer of choice.
However, does you organization deliver on these promises? Once the employees are inside do they feel that these commitments have been met? Is your organization committing the equivalent of “writing a cheque it can’t cash”? Take a look at the most prevalent organizational culture promises made today and how they can impact your organization's bottom line.
“We have an ‘open door’ policy”
This is something many employees expect to find in organizations today. They recognize the value in being able to access their manager when they have questions or concerns and they want to know if your organization supports this aspect of their development. Even when there are no doors involved (i.e. your workplace is a job site or open plan) the metaphor implies accessibility, but often this is at odds with reality. Employees who are told there is an open door policy often assume that when they have a concern it’ll be prioritized and the manager will put aside whatever they are working on to take the time to listen (an approach that is usually reserved for addressing emergencies). The outcome? Inconsistency. A manager may politely listen (best case scenario) before redirecting the employee because they are currently engaged in something critical to the business or their reaction may convey annoyance at the interruption (intentionally or unintentionally). By it’s very nature management roles are busy and often managers cannot consistently deliver on the expectation of an “open door”, but it is also a manager’s role to develop and look after their employees, hence many organizations use the metaphor of an “open door” to set a framework for communication - but at what cost?
An employee who receives a less than positive response to their attempt to speak to their manager is one who’ll be reticent to try it again; they may speak to their co-workers about it because they are confused and trying to make sense of what the open door policy is at the company (maybe just their manager isn’t responsive, etc.). If the employee’s impressions are confirmed and they hear that the open door is a myth because few managers practice it, it confirms an incongruity in your organizational culture. This starts to wear away at the foundation that was originally built with the employee through the hiring process (and subsequent communications). Open door practices are important because healthy organizations foster dialogue and two-way communication with their employees and this is one way to do it. However, to do this successfully organizations need to articulate what their open door policy means, ensuring both managers and employees are aware of what to expect from it resulting in consistent responsiveness that can drive high employee engagement and productivity.
“We value diversity”
Most organizations today are aware of the value of diversity; it brings different points of view and experience into what you can offer your clients, increasing your quality, product/service offerings and the number of accessible markets. However, diversity tends to falter as you look up the organizational ladder. Along the way to senior management there is a clear loss of momentum when you compare the number of employees who are of a visible minority, female or physically challenged to the number from these groups who are represented in management and leadership teams. This is not to say that employers aren’t committed to increasing the number of minority-based employees in these roles, and certainly most employer’s today hire from a diverse pool of applicants. However, these programs (while well intentioned) have not been entirely effective in addressing the lack of diversity at the top.
There are a variety of reasons why the discrepancy is prevalent today despite statistical movement in the right direction. While organizations have put in place programs to increase the accessibility of leadership positions to minority groups, often those programs assume the delta can be addressed through a singular or prescribed approach. Because of this the programs do not go far enough into the hygiene factors driving the delta, which are based on unintentional bias, assumptions, lack of awareness and risk-aversion. The outcome is employees from minority groups don’t have clear role models, often don’t have as many opportunities to learn to lead, do not receive as much recognition or visibility in the organization, don’t receive as many indicators that their work is valued or that different opinions/approaches are respected. Often these employees either leave the organization or settle into a role where they spend almost as much energy accomplishing work as they do trying to blend in.
The impacts are not limited to those in minority groups; it impacts all employees who can perceive the mixed message being sent by the organization around diversity, recognition and promotional practices. Organizations need to review their diversity program to ensure the support provided filters throughout the organization, including roles in senior management, in representative proportions to deliver on the expectations raised by these initiatives.
“We value your ideas/creativity/innovation”
Many organizations today have highlighted to their employees that they welcome their input. This takes the form of a call for cost saving measures, new ideas and “out of the box” thinking requests in an effort to increase organizational effectiveness from the bottom up. Often there is an initial push, lauded with much fanfare in the organization but often once a few ideas have been generated the initiative slowly dies from lack of attention (or is an annual item “unboxed” once a year). This again is incongruent with how an employee may view these programs as it takes longer then a few weeks to assemble the kind of ideas and inputs an organization may benefit from. Beyond that the whole initiative rings false when employees feel that an organization’s culture does not support the call for input.
The story of how 3M Post-It Notes were invented is well known and keenly demonstrates that when an organization backs up its innovation programs with the right culture, employees will deliver. Post-It Notes would never have come to pass if 3M hadn’t provided it’s employees with a workplace culture that allowed for experimentation, managed risk, collaboration and a place to fiddle (in this case a lab where employees could start and stop the non-critical work they did outside of their day-to-day job). 3M took a risk, they backed it up with time and materials…and it paid off with a lot of discretionary effort on the part of their employees. This is the type of example that comes to mind when employees think of these initiatives, however if the organization is perceived as merely paying lip service to it not only will it be wasted effort, but it has the potential to create employee dissatisfaction.
Employers who reap the value in employee creativity have threads running throughout their organization that support it on an ongoing basis. Sometimes this is through a learning culture where employees have access to expertise and education that brings up the standard in the organization incrementally. A dedicated place to safely experiment also fosters innovation, but it needs to be coupled with an organizational appetite for managed risk as this can be resource intense. Mostly, employees need consistent messaging and reinforcement to indicate it is OK to bring forward new or “off the wall” ideas, to collaborate on them and spend time on them to develop them into future products, cost savings or experience-based learning opportunities. Asking your employees to bring forward their ideas is a fantastic opportunity to get to know the untapped potential in your organization, but it needs to have a fertile place to grow. If your organization asks for but doesn’t appropriately support employee-based initiatives your workforce will not only stop participating but may feel disengaged.
The Cost of Inconsistency
When there is incongruity in the way an organization conducts itself the first casualty is productivity. Even when your employees continue to contribute you may see a change in the amount of discretionary effort applied (the effort employees choose to apply beyond what is required of their role). This may also impact the organization through lost opportunities (without the right environment 3M would never have created the Post-It Note). While it is notoriously difficult to calculate the cost of lost effort, it trends quickly impacting profitability.
Voluntary turnover causes a more measurable dip in productivity. There are calculators to help organizations compute these costs, including those of lost opportunities, recruitment, training and ramp-up time (for a position the organization had staffed in the first place). The cost? Between 10% and 130% of the salary for the position you are replacing (depending on the role within the organization; losing someone from senior management will have a larger financial impact). The biggest impact of this type of turnover is that in most cases it is completely avoidable.
There are many ways to confirm how employees feel about your organization; engagement surveys, anonymous feedback, skip levels, focus groups, etc. By far the most effective way to check to see if your organization is delivering on its culture commitments is to walk around and talk to people, get a feel for how they perceive your organization. The best way to maximize your workforce investment and save on costs is to deliver on your promises. Consistently.
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Facebook or Linked In.