July 07, 2007

Valuing your employees

Something Like Life
July 5, 2007

SOMETIME in 2003, at the height of the SARS outbreak, the pilots of Singapore Airlines (SIA) announced that they were going to accept wage cuts by as much as 16 percent, in an effort to shore up the finances of the carrier. Prior to this announcement, airline management had planned to lay off 400 personnel as the SARS epidemic had eaten into the carrier’s usually profitable bottom line. The agreement between the pilots’/officers’ unions and management was that the wage cuts were temporary, and as soon as the carrier was back in the black, their old salaries would be reinstalled and increases due them would be given.

As I recently talked with a friend going through a job crisis, I thought about what happened to SIA and how many wage earners here in the Philippines would probably make the same sacrifice. Probably not many. Perhaps none at all.

Most labor disputes here in the country, especially high-profile ones, usually ended up only one way. The closure of a company. There was a time when textile factories shut down one after the other, no longer able to compete with cheaper textiles flooding the market, produced by more efficient companies abroad.

In a number of those cases, the closure was guaranteed as soon as one saw the name of a militant labor organization being bandied on the streamers of the union that had gone on strike. The employees were taken with the brave fighting speeches of union leaders, pressing their demands, only to find themselves later out on the street, without any work and 10 children at home to feed.

The situation may have improved since those days. According to the Department of Labor and Employment, only one strike has been reported in the first half of the year, and even that labor dispute has already been settled. Most strikes have been averted by going through the process of mediation.

I think most company owners truly want the best only for their employees. But understandably, there are those who are also cruel and neglectful, and care only for their company’s bottom line. They don’t give a thought about their staff’s development and well-being, nor their customers’ convenience.

The workers’ union of one well-known department store, for example, was perennially on strike because of what remains perceived as its antilabor management practices. The company only hires sales staff on a contractual basis, six months at the most, then proceeds to hire a new set of staff after. While it saves the department store salary increases to pay for long-term employees, it results in the mediocre performance of its sales staff, with no dedication to customer service. Just try handing over a gift card to one of its cashiers, and you will be met with a blank stare and lots of fumbling over what to do with it. Sure, the store’s goods may be cheap, but its customer relations suck.

One also hears of grumblings among employees in a real-estate company, whose staff salaries have not risen over the years while their bosses keep rewarding themselves with annual raises. At a time when their company was deep in debt during the Asian financial crisis, their bosses were seen driving around in new cars and still sailing on their yachts.

I know there are companies hard-pressed to increase the salaries of their employees because of the seeming uncertainties still lingering in the country’s economy. So sometimes, even if bosses want to reward their loyal staff, their hands are tied by managerial priorities, e.g., paying off debts and expenses first.

After having been an employee for the longest time, and discussing employment issues with my peers, I realize that while financial rewards are a factor for individuals to consider staying in a company, it is not the only major consideration. After all, many wage earners these days consider themselves lucky to be in a job at a time when a number of companies are teetering on the brink of uncompetitiveness in this era of globalization.

How often have I heard the reason “Mabait s’ya” in reference to their bosses, like when I asked a friend why he still works in a company that has not given him a raise in over two years despite his hard work?

Some managers just find other ways to make their loyal staff feel appreciated to make up for financial rewards their company can hardly afford. It can be as little as remembering their secretary’s birthday, presenting gifts to their assistants during Christmas, or giving their staff extra time-off during the holidays or family emergencies.

I know one pre-need company, for example, which gives its employees a two-and-a-half-week paid leave during Christmas. The break not only saves the employees the headache of wading through massive traffic jams in the days leading up to Christmas Day, but it also gives them time to attend to their own Yuletide shopping. The company’s sales force is treated to conventions out of town or out of the country, finances permitting, while the children of its executives are entitled to free college education.

Long-time employees of a publicist I know, for example, tell me that they have stayed with the company because they are made to feel like they are “family.” And even if their boss screams at them, they know he does this to make sure they learn their lesson well. They feel it is like their father—or mother—yelling at them to shape up and not make the same mistake again. The boss also gives them tons of freebies, no doubt from his clients, which sometimes help make up for their average salaries.

Some bosses, unfortunately, lack even the emotional IQ of a chicken. They are insensitive to the psychological and emotional support needed by their long-suffering employees. Staff members who have been loyal to the company through thick and thin can hardly be expected to understand, for example, why they have been passed over for a promotion. I’ve heard one or two friends complain why management had to get an outsider to fill the shoes of a supervisor, for example, when they, the long-time employees, were eminently qualified? “Wala na ngang increase, wala pang promotion. Ano ba ’yun?”

Some managers also feel that just because they are making sacrifices, they should require their employees to do the same—this, without taking the time to explain the necessity of such sacrifices. “Matiisin s’ya” is a description of another manager I know. Sometimes the boss forgets that his staff doesn’t have the same capacity for tiis, and that he has to try to make the proper representations to management to give his staff some reward for their outstanding work. Granting management turns down his request, he should remember to sit down with his staff to explain to them the true state of the company, and why they are again without salary increases or promotions for the time being.

To earn the loyalty of one’s employees, management has to learn to trust them and make them feel like they are part of the family. Everyone has to be made to feel that his work is important to the survival of the firm.

And what’s a simple pat on the back for a job well done, a nice relaxing lunch, or even just a short vacation going to cost the manager or the company, when these little things are what may help their staff feel valued?

In short, managers need to realize that their staff are also human beings who need a break now and then, will require some pepping-up when energies or spirits sag, and will need to hear a kind word now and then to lift their morale. Sometimes, it is not the money that will make an employee happy. Sometimes, the key to an employee’s continued stay in the company could be nothing more than the feeling that he is much appreciated, and that his boss is devoted to his growth and welfare.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday, in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo from the BusinessMirror.)

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