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Are You Listening to Your Employees?

As recently as when the latest members of the baby boom generation entered the workforce, "loyalty" was still a word that described employee-employer relationships. Businesses thought in terms of attracting bright young minds and investing time, training, and money to cultivate long-term employees. Continuity, job evolution, employee growth, and long-range vision were paramount. Also, a much less volatile world inclined businesses to take a more cautious, conservative approach in developing new services and products. In the meantime, employees were looking for job security, opportunities for advancement, and incomes that would allow them to pay the bills and save for the future.

The world changed, however. Information overload, global economic competition, and rising customer expectations increased the risk of failure and the cost of survival. Businesses reacted to protect the bottom line, and employees began to think of themselves as just another commodity that had a limited useful life and could be discarded at will - or traded in for a newer model with lower costs. As businesses fought to survive by reducing costs, loyal employees faced abrupt and sometimes career-ending layoffs. The effects were profound - while CEOs were focused on being competitive in a global marketplace, the next generation of workers was learning new rules for survival in the workforce. As children, they experienced stress at home associated with unemployment, broken family relationships, difficult financial times, and the betrayal of the company loyalty that workers counted on. When those children arrived in the workplace, they were determined to survive by looking out for themselves as a first priority

That new generation now represents a growing proportion of the workforce. Older managers often seem surprised that these so-called Generation Xers have different attitudes about their employers, different expectations, and less commitment than their parents did. The problem is that while the perspective of the workforce changed - in the interests of survival - businesses and their leaders have been slow to understand what happened and why the workplace must change if managers are to re-establish the harmony that employer-employee relations once enjoyed. Moreover, in our changing economy, one could question whether those factors that were so important in the past are still relevant today. How important is it to hire employees who are not prone to job hop, employees who aspire to long-term jobs, employees who are loyal and who adhere strictly to the chain of command?

And what are the differences between the employees of yesterday and today? In the past, the focus was on doing what was good for the company. That is, how could the employees help the company be successful? Expressions such as "pay your dues and you will climb the ladder," "there are a lot of people who would like this job," and "we will train you" were commonly heard. Statements that resonate with today's X generation are "pursue our corporate goals and your own goals at the same time" and "seek out as much knowledge and as many skills as you can." We have moved from the day of the franchise player who will never be traded to the era of the free-agent workforce. As long as employees are challenged and rewarded, they will remain. When another company offers new challenges and more rewards, they will leave. The last generation took company loyalty to the workers for granted. The Generation Xers want evidence that individual loyalty is rewarded by the company They are less likely to make assumptions about their value to the organization.

It might be instructive to examine some of the differences between the new and old workforces. Areas in which those differences are manifest include staffing, training, delegation, performance evaluations, rewards, and work-life balance.


It used to be important to staff the job - that is, to be sure there was a full-time-equivalent (FTE) person to fulfill each job description. The new employment relationship is to staff the work and not the job. This approach may involve flexible work schedules or a change in the location where the work is performed. The introduction of flexibility may also work better for a company that is concerned about the total cost associated with full-time employees with full benefits.


Employees used to be trained and promoted gradually - and with attention to seniority as a factor in promotion. Seniority, sometimes synonymous with experience and seasoning, was highly valued. The new approach - providing only the training employees need to begin productive work - allows them more easily to see their contribution to the organization. Follow-up training for new tasks enables them to look forward to the challenges and skills that accompany new training. Employees today do not attribute as much importance to experience as they do to learning the basic skills and seeking new challenges. This may be one area in which the Gen Xers underestimate the wisdom of mentors who are telling them to be patient and gain experience before they aspire to new, higher-level responsibilities. They are often impatient and ready to move on.


Delegation of responsibility traditionally followed comprehensive training and a demonstration that the employee can complete the assigned tasks. In this

model, there was a built-in dependence on the organization. Today's employees, by contrast, want to demonstrate their independence and their ability to do the job with minimal day-to-day supervision. To maintain accountability and be responsive to employees, managers need to give away responsibility and provide goals, deadlines, and clear parameters: Give the employee 100 percent responsibility for the outcome. As employees prove themselves, more significant responsibilities can be delegated. When they encounter problems, the more self-assured employees are in many cases also more communicative with managers and coworkers. Some tension may arise, however, in providing a worker not only with the responsibility, but also with the authority to direct the resources needed for a given task. Often it is easier to delegate responsibility than to delegate authority, yet employers must do both to succeed.

Performance Evaluations

For generations, the annual performance evaluation has been a fixture in the workplace. The evaluation typically corresponds with an annual salary review and serves as the foundation for any salary increase, whether the increase is based on merit or longevity There is some concern, however, that the annual review is now obsolete. Employees are constantly looking for feedback - coincident with performance. Many find themselves in situations in which they must be responsive first and can be proactive only when the immediate "fires" are extinguished. That means they need to change direction frequently and amend objectives or tasks. Many annual employee objectives may be irrelevant soon after they are written and long before the next annual review. Performance evaluation for the current generation of new employees must be frequent, accurate, specific, and timely


Another issue with the timing of performance evaluations is the frequent disconnect between the institution of the annual evaluation and the concept of pay for performance. A frequent criticism of salary systems is their inflexibility in rewarding different levels of performance differently Some systems still offer equal increases across the board, while others provide a range of increases depending on performance. Few systems attempt to reward short-term or one-time accomplishments. Onetime bonuses, noncash awards, and long-term salary increases all should be considered in effective plans for the administration of salaries and compensation. The key, as described above, is to provide frequent feedback on performance and to accompany that feedback with the appropriate reward.


The success of the American economy is due largely to the creativity, initiative, and persistence of the American workforce. The term "workaholic" is common, and everyone knows individuals who meet the definition. For them, work often has come before family and recreation - and often at great personal sacrifice. Employees entering the workforce today do not subscribe to that notion. They are seeking a more balanced life. Their definition of success is balance between work, rewards, family, and fun. Therefore, benefits such as time off, flexible hours, and a generally more flexible workplace are often as important as salary. Achieving better balance probably will result in higher productivity during the time spent at work, less burnout, and fewer deleterious effects from stress - that is, a lower prevalence of heart disease, hypertension, ulcers, and suicide.

The topics addressed here constitute only a few of the areas in which the perspective of Generation X differs from that of past generations of workers. A true paradigm shift is needed. The evolution of a new workforce calls for a change in the rules by which the workplace operates, just as the evolution of new technology has changed the rules of how society operates. Otherwise the result will be chaos and inefficiency Today's entry-level employees grew up with the concept of free agency They are not willing to trust employers to be fully responsible for their well-being as their parents and grandparents once did. They have been raised to be self-reliant and independent and to question the status quo. That profile is probably no better or worse than that of previous generations - just different.

Darwin's concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest also applies to the workplace. Every day, the news provides examples of companies that did not adapt and failed. Meanwhile, other companies have adapted to overcome threats to their success and even have developed a forward vision that scans for other threats on the horizon. If we listen carefully to the new workers coming in the door, we may be able to initiate changes that will enhance worker productivity and strengthen the capacity of our organization to be competitive in today's marketplace. The result will be not only survival, but also prosperity and harmony.
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Author:Wiant, Chris J.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Previous Article:Khalil H. Mancy, Ph.D.
Next Article:Tools for Environmental Health.

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