We finally had the first substantial snowstorm of the year, so we were all subjected to the list of closings and delays on the bottom of local network television. One of the terms that always strike me during these announcements is “nonessential employees.” I realize that the term refers, at least in the case of a snowstorm, to those that are not directly related to the safety and welfare of the population. Regardless, I always wonder if the nonessential employees feel stigmatized because they are not necessary.
This got me to thinking about employees in general. Most employers would agree that they want an engaged workforce. Most executives would also grant that their companies would not be where they are without the benefit of their employees. Further, more progressive bosses will recognize that they need to let their workers know how vital they are to the business’s success. Unfortunately, many go about this communication in a way that comes across as trite. They say, “Our employees are our greatest asset.”
The problem with any cliché is that the listener does not know if the speaker is sincere or just reciting a mindless platitude. Anyone who tells their employees, then, that they are the company’s greatest asset should not be surprised if those employees do not necessarily and immediately believe it. Employees need to feel valued, and there is a better way to express that gratitude than a banal phrase.
First of all, the definition of an asset characterizes two things that employees should never feel. One is an economic resource. Yes, an employee is with a company to help the company make money or achieve its mission. If the company is not better off with the employee, that worker is not worth employing. However, employees should not feel that they are simply a means to an end for the business owners, executives or management team. The second uncomfortable characteristic of an asset is that it is something that is owned. There are necessary hierarchies in every business, but bosses should never equate their employees as something they possess or control.
Aside from the troubling semantics of the phrase, the saying simply has little depth on its own. Many who claim that their employees are their greatest asset fully believe it. In that case, they need to give examples. Are the employees why the business can continue? Are employees why customers are satisfied? Are the employees the difference between a great company and a good company?
In a service-oriented industry, like accounting, it may be easier to convey the importance of each and every employee. Other businesses may require a more creative mechanism to express the significance of the employees.
One vignette I came across talked about how a particular hotel chain was successful because of its housekeepers. Some may consider a cleaning position to be “nonessential,” yet this organization had committed, engaged, and happy housekeepers because they believed they were making a positive difference for the company.
The hotel instilled the belief in the housekeepers that they were the most important workers in the entire building. When a traveler gets to their room, they expect it to be clean, and they develop a large part of their opinion on their stay upon their first impression of the room. If the floors sparkle and the bed is crisply made, the guest will tend to enjoy his or her stay. If not, he or she may not return the next time. Housekeepers, as it turns out in this example, were key to securing repeat customers.
So, the next time that you want to communicate the vital role that your employees play in the business, don’t simply tell them that they are the company’s greatest asset. Make sure, instead, you can tell them how they make the company great.
And, if someone tells you that you are the organization’s greatest asset, don’t be afraid to ask why. After all, you are essential.
By Dan Massey, CPA, Manager