Select Page

Service Is Our Business chapter 8

COMMUNICATION is the magic mockery that science makes of distance. Swift flight has brought any spot of the globe within sixty hours’ travel from “our town” The minds of men are being linked across the planet by telephone, radio, and television while a closely coordinated system of transport brings the loneliest farm within the reach of civilization.

Through highly sensitive devices, marvels of ingenuity and discipline, this conquest of distance is achieved. Yet the conqueror himself, too often remains isolated in spirit, aloof from his fellow-men, incapable of the most rudimentary gesture or contact.

As we have seen, an essential element in service consists in bridging the gulf created by self-interest. In the case of a competitor, it meant going more than half-way in friendship. Where customers were concerned, real communication was established through the salesman’s interest in their actual needs.

Not so evident, however, is the need for dispelling the distance that authority interposes in relations with employees. Subconsciously a distinction is made between customers who are wooed with every sort of consideration—and employees whose time, talents, and energies have been purchased and brought under authority. According to the common assumption, it is the employee’s role to woo the favor of the man who has hired him.

There is usually a half-truth in most common assumptions that need not be denied while the whole truth is being sought. Granting the authority of the employer—even in a period of acute labor shortage—is it not true likewise that employees are just as vital to the success of a business as customers? He profits most , . . whose employees are alert, intelligent, and cooperative. It they are lackadaisical clock watchers, their employer may be wasting as much as fifty per cent of his annual payroll- If they are discontented and rebellious, all the profit from his skillful organization may go with the wind.

Once the employee is hired, moreover, there is a change in the relationship. The employer ceases to be merely the purchaser of a commodity. He becomes in some respects a salesman, with the employee in the position of a customer who has to be “sold” on his job – instructed and inspired to co-operate with a whole heart. Even though the employee who proves unsatisfactory can be dismissed, his case is not so different from that of a customer whose account is closed for one
reason or another.

Much of the experience gained in relations with customers can be applied in obtaining the best efforts from employees. The first step is to overcome the distance imposed by authority. The salesman finds that his primary function is to study the needs of his customers and to place their interest in satisfactory service before his own interest in profit. Customers respond favorably to such treatment, and so do employees.

“They act as though they wanted to give us a break,” said the president of a trade-union in tribute to a company with which he had been having difficult negotiations. “We don’t always win, but no matter how big or how small the matter may be, they always listen. You can’t help liking guys who listen”

The lack o£ easy channels of communication is often an initial cause of many destructive labor disputes that spread impoverishment far and wide. Inability to listen is no less fatal in many small businesses where silent frustration may be even more destructive of efficiency than open revolt. Rotary in action would provide an open door to the boss’s office, a standing invitation to employees to come in and air their difficulties. The president of a Rotary club in California suggests the following points to remember ‘^when an employee is dissatisfied and comes to you for an interview”:

Listen, don’t talk. Many things will work themselves out when the employee is allowed to “get it off his chest:’

Don’t argue.

Don’t lecture. The employee feels cut off. Lecturing blocks communication.

Pay attention to what he wants to say and help him to express himself clearly.

Don’t express moral attitudes.

Don’t let your emotions creep in.

Test your understanding and at the same time stimulate further expression by summarizing from time to time the employee’s views.

The employer’s effort in all such interviews should be to help the employee talk out his problem; to secure an understanding of the difficulty; and to assist in finding a solution.

The precious time given to such interviews will not be wasted if they result in a new awareness and increased energy on the part of the employee. Without pretending to be psychiatrists, employers need not ignore the fact that personality problems often affect the efficiency of the worker. These may spring from tangible worries ranging from sickness in the home to unpleasant relations with a fellow-employee. Or, it may be some deep-seated personal difficulty.

A doctor who has had much experience with the impact of personality in factory work has classified these maladjustments as arising from a number of causes: excessive preoccupation with self, aggressive responses to things or persons in the environment, aggressions turned inward (often resulting in deliberate accidents, drunkenness, or self-induced failure) passively dependent traits, and compensation for insecurity or inadequacy.

The employer who thinks he detects any of these maladjustments in his employees may not be able to provide a complete solution. Knowledge of their existence, however, may suggest changes in the kind of work the employee is doing or perhaps association with different people.

Praise and blame arc two channels of communication open directly to the employer because of his authority. Used positively, constructively, in relation to performance of the job rather than to personality—both can bring about a better relationship with employees. Blame, however impersonal, may be depressing unless the recipient is very sure of his ability to overcome the defect. Many employers accordingly prefer “a criticism sandwich”—two slices of praise for things the employee is actually accomplishing with one slice of blame in .between where correction is desired or needed. In keeping blame impersonal, complete privacy is almost essential, for spectators direct the employee’s attention toward himself and create a feeling of self-pity.

An employer, moreover, who takes upon his own shoulders a generous share of the blame for failures that have occurred not only avoids humiliating the worker, but also discourages any tendency to “pass the buck” a habit as infectious as it is harmful to the general morale of the business.

Is there any substantial reason for the fear sometimes expressed that such human consideration for the feelings of employees detracts from the authority and dignity of the boss? Surely not. There is no question here of “coddling” employees any more than might exist in a similar concern for the feelings and complaints of customers. The same Golden Rule impels you to treat employees as you would like to be treated if you yourself were working at the bench or behind the counter.

Each complaint provides an opportunity for achieving basic improvements in the relationship. Rules that are infringed may need to be explained or it may develop that they are not really necessary. Employers are discovering constantly that the abolition of needless restrictions is very helpful to employee morale, and that self-discipline or group discipline by fellow-workers is just as effective. A plant that dispensed with time-clocks and permitted the employees to smoke, lunch, or rest when they chose, was rewarded by increased output. Abuse of these privileges by individual workers was roundly rebuked by fellow-workers. An “honor-system” shifted the burden of unpleasant supervision to the employees themselves.

Another valuable channel of communication is the encouragement of new ideas and suggestions, A labor leader gave trenchant utterance to the need for opening this channel. “There never was a factory yet that came within hailing distance of its fullest possible production’,’ he told his union members. “And it never will without you and you and you. You can see things that management can’t see. You can see the little wastes that add up to the one great terrible waste. Management can’t stop them. You can”

An employee should know the details of his job better than anyone else. Certainly, he has a particular point of view and a special interest in it. Ideas often occur to him that would escape anyone not so closely identified with the work at hand. If he knows that his suggestions are welcomed, carefully studied, and fairly rewarded—or, at the least, recognized—he is likely to take a more intelligent attitude toward his work.

A railroad has popularized the slogan, “There is no ceiling on new ideas” In its advertising it boasts of the thousands of dollars it has paid for valuable employee suggestions. No matter if three-fourths of the ideas prove impractical—provided their authors are told why—those that are adopted more than compensate for the trouble of installing a suggestion system. The value of the by-products in general keenness and sense of participation is inestimable. No concern is so small that it cannot benefit from a system that employees know is fair and efficient.

A broadening of this channel of communication has been introduced by a Rotarian in what he calls “multiple management” In his business, a revolving committee of employees considers suggestions for improved efficiency with the single stipulation that they must approve ideas unanimously before endorsing them- Very few of the proposals endorsed by these committees have failed to receive prompt and profitable application. In addition, there has been instilled throughout the concern a spirit that could not be purchased at any price. As one employee put it, “I feel like I’m in business for myself with someone else’s money”

One leading British company has a meeting every three or four weeks with a group of employees whose names literally come out of the hat and represent all departments. No minutes are taken and the directors present give a guarantee that no employee will be penalized in any way for anything he may say. Only one question is asked by management: “What’s wrong with us, and how do you think we can improve our management of the company?”

The results are reported to be immensely worth while, and the directors have gained a valuable personal contact with large numbers of their workpeople by this means. Great interest has been created in the progress and management of the concern, and during the operation of the plan over a number of years there have been no strikes.

Employees too often assume that management knows little or nothing of their problems. However, a study of the largest businesses in America showed that the starting wages of the 143 men who are now top executives averaged $13.40 a week. Like the vast majority of employers, these men started very near the bottom. Yet to how many employees, is management away off somewhere in an ivory tower?

Similarly, the wildest opinions often exist about the extent of profit that is being taken from industry. One poll of workers registered the belief that the owners took seventy-five per cent of the gross receipts. Railroad employees guessed on the average that stock-holders of their road received a twenty-seven per cent return on their investment, whereas the actual dividends amounted to just three per cent. Another poll of workers revealed that less than a quarter of those polled had received any substantial information about the plans and prospects, problems or profits of the concerns which employed them.

Does not this failure to communicate, rather than any ambition on the part of employees to usurp the functions of management, explain much current discontent and unrest?

Many alternative channels exist for dispelling this kind of ignorance. Some firms enclose in their pay envelopes simple and graphic statements of their financial situation. Others make such statements a part of the general information in house organs which are distributed to employees and their families. Smaller concerns may best convey this information through meetings of employers with employees.

The object of such meetings should be to reduce the distance imposed by authority; to impart the fervor that may be lost in transmission through subordinates; and to face frankly the problems and misunderstandings that disturb employees. The Rotarian who is able to do this with simplicity and without, as one executive put it, “making noises like a corporation” has not wasted his Rotary training.

In many parts of the world, these meetings are organized permanently as a “works council” in which representatives of the employees are invited to discuss the problems and the progress of the business. British Rotarians claim success in overcoming a suspicion among the workers that the works council is “just another dodge to pull the wool over their eyes.” Constant presence of the chief executive of the business at meetings of the works council, alternating chairmanship between employees and management, complete equality for all in candid expressions of opinion are among the remedies for such feelings.

The scope of the idea is indicated by its adaptation to the needs of natives engaged in industry as reported by Rotarians in South Africa:

The eyes of the world are focused on South Africa and its native policy more now than at any time of its history. We must be progressive in our thoughts on this issue generally although our specific interest is with the native in our own industry.

The procedure for the establishment of a native works council is simple in the extreme. Avoid a constitution and do not bar discussion on any subject. Two or three members of the management should be on the council with any number of Africans. Meet at monthly intervals and never hesitate to call special meetings. Members should hold office for twelve months and should not be elected on a tribal basis.

Employees elect their own members to serve on the works council. Sitting around a table with the chairman of the board of directors, they hammer out all their difficulties, and often make valuable suggestions for the betterment of the firm.

I can honestly say that the effect of these works councils has been most marked, and not in one instance has it failed to prevent employees going out on strike.

To give all employees a clear picture of the council’s work, Rotarians recommend publication of the full minutes of its meetings. A booklet issued by one firm under the title of, What It Has Done, credited the council with first-rate ideas on production, the reduction of absenteeism, and the creation of a more friendly atmosphere in the plant.

Besides being prolific in valuable suggestions for improved efficiency, works councils often concern themselves with the general welfare and health of employees, savings and benefit funds, improvements in safety, or projects for entertainment and education. Above all, they contribute to a feeling of responsibility and self-respect in every worker by giving him a sense of belonging to the “team.”

Meetings with employees also provide the best atmosphere for communicating the ideals of vocational service. This good thing should be shared. It a Rotarian keeps Rotary to himself as a private cult, he is missing much of his opportunity to serve society. The daily incidents of business furnish him with admirable illustrations for arousing in his associates the realization that “they also serve.” It will interest them to know why he goes each week to his Rotary meeting, what he gets there, and how it affects them. No better bridge could be constructed for human relations than the explanation by an employer of his own adventure in service. And how thrilling to his employees would be his invitation to comradeship in this adventure.

“They also server The eagerness of employees to share, richly and deeply, the aims which Rotary brings to business, has been amply demonstrated. Here, for instance, is the experience of a Rotarian who employs a total of seven persons. One day, he called all seven of them together, told them something of the vocational service program of Rotary and then presented to each of them a copy of “Service is My Business” with the suggestion that he would like to have them read the book at their convenience.

Only Sam, an old negro who had worked many years as a general handyman did not get a copy, for he had never learned to read. A copy was presented, however, to Sam’s son who worked part-time in the store.

A few days later, the Rotarian heard that Sam had asked his son to read the book aloud to him. Questioned about it, Sam replied: “Yassuh, we not only read it through once, but we has almost finished it twiced.”

“Did you, indeed? Well, just what does the book mean to you?”

“Why, suh,” replied Sam, “I got this much out of it; it don’t make no difference how good those manufacturers make those drugs we got here in the store or how good they make those oxygen tents, if ol’ Sam don’t get them delivered to the right place and in time, they aren’t goin’ to be worth nothin’ at all.”

What are you doing to make your employees aware of the purposes of Rotary?