Sharing the ‘Right’ Message

For an employee, few life experiences are as traumatic or demoralizing as working for an employer who allows or even encourages its supervisors to hold job security or other advantages over their heads like a guillotine. Fortunately, growing numbers of employers have come to realize that they not only need hardworking, qualified employees in order to prosper, they need supervisors capable of communicating to the employees how much the company cares for and appreciates them.

Many company owners have a strong sense of responsibility toward their employees and truly respect and value them. Yet, this high regard can get lost in translation when the company grows big enough to need middle managers and supervisors. A look at the origins of the modern Employment Standards Act sheds some light on how the relationship between managers and employees has evolved. During confederation, Canada adopted master-servant law from Britain and to some extent, this inherently adversarial perspective has found its way into what many people accept as the nature of work, and of motivating and managing employees. It may be time to challenge this.

Yes, an employer still has a measure of power, such as the right to grant, enhance and withdraw an employee’s earning power, and to determine which types of tasks an employee will perform. However, competition among employers for the best employees means that in many fields, employers must go well beyond the Employment Standards Act. Higher wages, extended health benefits and pension plans are some of the ways employers show employees that they care. Others include other less obvious benefits such as offering additional paid vacation time, fitness reimbursement, team sponsorship, child care allowances, additional amenities in the workplace, and some measure of flexibility in terms of hours of work. Despite all of these measures, when old attitudes persist at the supervisory level some employees still feel that their employers don’t really care about them.

From this perspective, a forceful personality, formal authority and the desire to achieve the company’s business goals at all costs are not a recipe for supervisory success. In fact, they can be the opposite. A much better approach is to train supervisors to watch for and continually seek to balance and reconcile the differences between employer and employee priorities. Successful companies are interested in understanding and aligning the two areas of interest to develop an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect between management and employees.

The extent to which a supervisor is able to do this rests not only on his or her training, leadership and technical skills, knowledge and experience, but on the policy framework the employer puts in place. Ideally, policies offer employees a clear picture of how the company’s goals and the employee’s goals are aligned, and creates opportunities for mutual benefit. They also allow supervisors to adopt a model of consistency and fairness. Supervisors who are perceived as fair can still be firm while earning the respect of their employees. Respect translates into engagement, which in turn drives better results.

Policies should also help eliminate potential areas of conflict by providing clarity about the “rules” of the workplace. The framework should also articulate how supervisors are to manage the relationship between the company and its employees, and how differences between supervisors and employees will be resolved. The company should also provide supervisors with a sense of the company’s history, values and aspirations, so supervisors are better able to help employees see themselves as a vital part of the company’s future.

The depth and breadth of an employee’s ability to share their talents every day in exchange for pay and benefits is heavily dependent on the relationship between the employee and the employer, and the supervisors and managers who represent those values.

Most business leaders agree that employees leave supervisors, not companies. It’s in a company’s best interest to make sure that supervisors are sending the right message.