Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Ed Frauenheim

Sep. 17, 2013

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Workforce.

The workplace is going forward and backward at the same time.

Some organizations are adopting enlightened practices and seeking ties with workers that promise to leave both sides better off in the future. But other businesses are headed back to darker times, toward caveman callousness.

They are treating workers as disposable resources to be squeezed and discarded at the slightest sign of trouble. Or, especially outside of the United States, brutalizing workers and subjecting them to perilous conditions that all too often turn deadly — as seen in the Bangladesh factory collapse earlier this year that killed some 1,100 garment workers.

The bad stuff is sobering. But I’m convinced the story is ultimately a happy one. That thanks to a convergence of factors we’re headed in the direction of ever-more-humane treatment of “human capital.”

Let me take a step back to introduce myself and this column. I am associate editorial director of Workforce and its sister publications in the Human Capital Media family.

I’ve been at Workforce as an editor and writer for eight years, and I’ve been a journalist covering business, technology and other issues for nearly two decades.

I see myself as a boundary spanner between employees and employers. An advocate, of sorts, for both. This dual identity is rooted in my family history. I come from a line of industrialists and entrepreneurs, including the co-founder of Iron City Brewery in Pittsburgh whose name I share. I also come from a family concerned with those on the lower rungs of the economic totem pole. Lots of social workers and teachers among my relatives. My brother is a Teamster. I too was a union member. And my reporting has often sought to look out for rank-and-file workers.

But I also appreciate the business end of the bargain. Living in the Bay Area for most of my adult life, I am inspired by Silicon Valley’s culture. I recently helped judge an innovation contest in Northern California, and I’m co-writing a book about innovation strategy in America.

I know companies can’t give away the store to employees. But I also believe the store is most likely to succeed when companies and workers join together in a culture of reciprocity. That was the argument of the book I co-wrote a couple of years ago. The predictions of “Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era” haven’t all come true overnight, but the long-term trends identified remain valid. Young people especially want to work for a business they can feel proud of. Consumers and investors care more and more about the social responsibility of companies. Technology has made it harder to hide problems.

So in this column, I will focus on how firms can fashion a smart, mutually beneficial deal with workers and a corresponding culture of energized engagement. At a high level, I see three key components: companies should be caring, exacting and inspiring with respect to workers. They should seek to blend a version of 1950s-era paternalism with a 2000s-style climate of high performance, and include a stirring vision.

I recognize that’s not an easy formula to achieve, and the task is complicated by a range of issues including technological change, liability risk and limited resources. I don’t have all the answers. But I hope in this column to pose provocative questions, point to revelatory research and tell compelling stories.

There are plenty out there. I am constantly surprised by the encouraging ways organizations are striking the employment deal. This includes small firms like Impact Advisors, a health care information technology consulting firm. It employs only about 160 people, but it cares so much about worker well-being that it has a “director of firm culture and associate satisfaction.”

That director, Michael Nutter, recently told me about the company’s radical recognition program. Impact employees can give each other $50 gifts for a job well done, and the trust level is so high that they don’t have to get approvals to bestow the rewards. “That’s just who we are,” Nutter said.  Who they are also is the sixth-fastest-growing company in the Chicago area, with head count about doubling in the past three years.

Big firms, too, are on the right track. Consider car-maker Ford’s recently announced Sustainable Workforce Initiative to boost the health, efficiency and productivity of hourly employees. Ford is getting the rubber to meet the road. The company has brought overall injury rates to one-tenth the levels of 1999, it is investing in simulated factory training and it recently launched a personalized health care program to help employees manage chronic health care needs. Is it a coincidence that Ford didn’t need a federal bailout?

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So it goes, I believe, in people management. The workplace is a work in progress. But it is progressing.

Ed Frauenheim is associate editorial director of Human Capital Media, the parent organization of Workforce. Comment below or email Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at@edfrauenheim.

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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