Why we should give ownership of their jobs to our employees

Although I have touched on the subject before, two recent incidents have brought me back. An event I organize was severely disrupted by failures in catering at the venue, and I gave up queueing in a branch of a well-known pharmacy chain because only one assistant was serving as opposed to four or five who were having a nice chat in the corner.

The catering problem was in part to do with lack of supervision. There was no one available to tell the waiting staff what to do and how to deliver a buffet on time. Presumably they were told to report to the kitchen and were handed the food when it was ready, which was at least twenty minutes after it was supposed to have been. They then carried what they were given into the room where the event was taking place (incidentally a room too small for the number of attendees advised in advance to the venue).

Our venue employees also failed to note that the equipment to keep the food warm was not switched on, there were insufficient plates and hardly any cutlery, and the fruit salad should have been delivered before the main course (it was breakfast).

There were other issues, but I have given enough details to demonstrate what was wrong, which was that the staff had not been properly trained if they were trained at all; they were not asked to think for themselves or did not feel that they had sufficient authority to act on their own initiative in the face of obvious problems. The manager was not in, but if the staff had been able to respond quickly to the large number of requests for additional items of food, cutlery and appliances, it would have meant less disruption. If someone had looked at the whole picture and dealt with it, our problems would have been minor.

I do not suppose that the venue employees are well-paid. However, everyone has to start somewhere, and in addition to essential training there needs to be the sort of management that encourages initiative and through that, progression to greater things. I started as the office boy, but I accepted my lot because I knew that if I got the simple things right it would lead to more responsibility. I made the tea (or coffee), remembered who took sugar and who didn’t, did everyone’s filing, and bought chocolates and ordered flowers for the boss’s wife. I could use my initiative to help people out, including choosing the chocolates and the flowers.

It is not good enough to have our staff just follow orders. They need to know what is expected of them and that should include using their common sense and asking for anything extra they need to do their job. Of course that means that they must feel comfortable in being able to talk to their bosses and that they will have a friendly ear, and even if their suggestion is not immediately considered they should know that their having asked a question will not counted against them. It should be accepted as being motivated by good intentions.

At the end of my event the manager did finally arrive. He apologised and blamed the staff for being stupid and ignorant. However, the blame was his in my book. He wasn’t there when needed, and he had not given his staff authority or motivation to deal with any problems in his absence.

In a factory or a closed office environment one might get away with a one-off failure if it is rectified quickly. In providing a service to the public, mistakes can be very costly for the reputation of a business. This is why I believe managers must take ownership of their responsibilities, but also why employees should be given ownership and responsibility too, with the carrot of reward and recognition for stepping in when needed.

Have you seen similar situations? Do you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010

How to get the best out of our employees and co-workers

In the late seventies, when of course I was very young, Britain organised a recession all for itself. It was punctuated and marked by industrial disputes and strikes, notably by the seamen, the public service workers, and of course the rail workers. I need to say that this is not going to be a union-bashing piece or even a Government-bashing piece, though we have a scene now in a new recession which is quite reminiscent of those bad old days. People now forget the strikes of the seventies were the raison d’être for the confrontation with the miners during the Thatcher years. There was an understandable feeling of “never again”. With hindsight, the approach might not have been quite right, but the thing about hindsight is that you do not have it until after the event.

At the time of writing we have threats of a national strike by the postal workers (threats of staff cuts and modernisation of working practices), and a strike by Corus steel workers (closure of its final salary pension scheme to new entrants, i.e. mainly people who have not joined the company yet). One by National Express Rail workers (pay offer above inflation deemed insufficient) has been settled. One supposes that all these disputes are over genuinely perceived issues without a political agenda.

These strikes make me feel quite uncomfortable in that they can make the recession worse, affecting productivity through travel difficulties and raw material supply, as well as cash-flow, so important to many businesses including especially, small businesses. It really shouldn’t be funny, but there is a comic absurdity in all this, at a time when even the TUC is forecasting that there will be 4 million unemployed within the next year or so.

The confrontation and posturing we see on both sides of these disputes between major employers and unions is certainly not the sort of behaviour we would want to see in small business, and indeed we do not see it very often. However, unfortunately management and workers can still take very entrenched positions, particularly over productivity and in respect of staff absence. It can happen in respect of pay too.

Fortunately the small business owner is in a much better position to do something about these problems and to put matters right. It involves taking a friendly approach which might be alien to the big employers and their workforce representatives. Being nice to someone is certainly never harmful. So, if there is a productivity problem we, our small business owner or SME director should say to the workers individually or together (it depends on circumstances) “I know that you are doing your best, but we really are not getting the results we expect. Do you have a suggestion as to how we could get through more work? Is there a problem you can identify and something we can change?” That way the staff will feel happy that they have been asked and feel more valued. We will be giving them some responsibility for their work and there may well be something the business could change to make the system better and get more work done. At the same time, the staff will feel more able to volunteer issues that concern them and give useful feedback without being asked.

In the case of staff absence, it is always best at the earliest stage to talk to the individual because there may be an area in which we can help. Again, the person will feel valued, and perhaps one could allow some flexibility on working hours if there is something which keeps the person away from work. Of course, common sense must prevail, but again we encourage collective responsibility. Even pay issues are best resolved by talking first, and individual incentives related to personal productivity can also encourage valuable feedback.

None of this is novel, but both small business employers and their staff can get into entrenched attitudes if they do not talk enough or at all. We have nothing to lose by being friendly and kind to those who work for us. I have always found that if our team members like us, they will respect us and try harder to please, which of course benefits them hugely, as well as our business.

© Jon Stow 2009

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