“Employees are our most important resource” is
a sentiment that appears in many corporate values statements. But
how often do managers in these organizations walk the talk. If
you asked their employees, what would they say? More
importantly, in your organization, despite what your values
statement says, where do you think employees fall on managers’ list
I found one rather cynical answer to these questions in,
of all places, a Dilbert cartoon. Dilbert’s
pointy haired boss tells him that he’s decided that
people aren’t his most valuable resource. Dilbert,
looking surprised, asks where people do fit as a priority.
His boss replies “Eighth, right after carbon paper.”
If you read Dilbert regularly you’ll agree that the
pointy haired boss seldom says or does anything one would
call “enlightened”. But in this case, I thought “Now
here’s an honest man!” He doesn’t
believe that employees are number one, and he has the good
sense to say so. But how many other pointy haired bosses
are out there who don’t realize that their stated “number
one value” is not reflected in their every day behaviour;
that employees are seldom number one, and in fact are often
far down the list.
Although I don’t have any rigorous scientific evidence,
my sense is that there are many. And here are three pieces
of anecdotal evidence I can offer in support.
Higher Than Carbon Paper?
First, for many years, as part of a strategic discussion,
I’ve asked teams of managers to list the most important
drivers of business success over which they have some control.
I then ask them to choose their three highest and lowest
priorities. In other words which drivers have the greatest
impact on organizational success? After conducting
this exercise with hundreds of managers over many years,
two strong trends have emerged. First, the concept of employees,
in some form, usually makes the list (carbon paper
never makes it). Secondly, employees very, very
seldom make the top three. In most organizations
they simply aren’t perceived as one of the most important
drivers of business success!
The second item of evidence comes from employee surveys.
I have surveyed employees in a vast array of organizations
both public and private often followed by in-depth
focus group discussions. I have surveyed employees in organizations
which appear to be both terrific places to work as well as
the opposite and have never found a critical mass of employees
who believe that they are close to being treated as “the
most valued resource”. Even the most satisfied employee
groups would stop short of such a statement.
Finally, when you work in a wide range of different organizations,
one thing that becomes obvious is that the managers I described
earlier who were ranking important drivers may be right. There
seems only a weak to moderate correlation between managers
placing an extremely high value on employees and their organization’s
business success. Many companies don’t focus
a great deal of energy on employees and still find success. I’m
not claiming there’s no relationship. I’m saying
that many companies are extremely successful and show no
true appreciation of their human resource. These are the
organizations in which it is most difficult to play a meaningful
HR role. The unspoken response to implementation of new employee-centred
practises is, “we’re very successful now, and
so why should be change”. Of course the answer
is that they would be even more successful if they optimized
the full value of their employees. But old habits die
hard, and most managers aren’t convinced.
So What Can We Learn?
First I must confess that the evidence I’ve outlined
can be viewed as exaggeration in order to prove a point. Of
course there are companies that treat their employees as
their most important resource. In industries where
there are critical skill shortages, success does depend on
being perceived as an employer of choice, attracting and
retaining the best employees, and thus treating them as a
most valued resource. The real point I’m making
is that many companies don’t, and if they don’t
they shouldn’t say they do. There is nothing to be
gained and a great deal of credibility to be lost. So
here are some learning points to take away.
- When including statements about employees as part of
your values, think about it and choose your words carefully
to ensure that they reflect reality.
- If you are attempting to change your organization’s
culture, you can present value statements as aspirations
as opposed to current reality. But if you do, say so. One
of my clients took a new position as Vice President Human
Resources. At the first strategy meeting he noted that
nowhere in the values statement were employees mentioned,
and suggested strongly that a new statement be added. But
this was an aspiration statement. It was actually
saying that in future, we as an executive team are going
to strive to show employees that they are valued highly.
We aren’t there yet, but we are moving in that direction.
- If you are in an influential HR role you should be the
champion of the human resource. In other words, you should
be continually gathering evidence that paying attention
to employees adds real value to the organization. Directly
or indirectly effective people management will add to the
- Finally, as a continuous learner, remember that insight
can come from many unusual sources, even Dilbert’s
pointy haired boss.
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