Building the high-commitment workplace

Building the high-commitment workplace (November 22, 2001)

The View From Taft, Business World

I recently listened to a presentation by consulting firm Hewitt Associates on their “Best Employers in Asia 2001” study ( Being an avid follower of the “Best Companies to Work for in America” reports in Fortune magazine, I was eager to learn what the great employers of Asia were doing. The study focused on, among other things, corporate practices which encourage employees to publicly acknowledge their positive sentiments about their employers (say), to remain longer (stay) and to work harder to achieve company goals (strive). In other words, practices which result in high-commitment workplaces.

The findings point to at least six key people practices among the so-called “best employers”:

    • Recruitment – The best employers make sure that the people they hire have a clear expectation of how their companies operate as well as their cultures.

    • Learning and development – The best employers emphasize human resource development for all levels of the company and make sure to include leadership development activities for top and middle management. Training programs are also better implemented, whether physically delivered or through the Web.

    • Finding and nurturing high potential employees – The best employers define career paths for their staff and try hard to identify the most promising people within the organization.

    • Work environment – The best employers strengthen the bond between employees and the company through, for example, special event celebrations and social events.

    • Communication – The best employers make sure that management is accessible to the staff and is giving a clear sense of direction to everyone.

    • Pay and benefits – The best employers pay fairly and have staff incentive programs.

The Hewitt study results cannot be generalized because of an obvious self-selection bias in the sampling methodology, i.e., company participants contributed data by nominating themselves and submitting completed questionnaires within a specified time-frame. Still, I have no major concerns about the validity of the findings because they are consistent with much of the writing and research on effective management and organization of the past century. In fact, the most surprising thing about the Hewitt findings is that they are no surprise at all. Organizational and management writers like Elton Mayo (group commitment and productivity), Abraham Maslow (needs), Frederick Herzberg and Douglas McGregor (motivation), Peter Drucker (management direction), Chris Argyris and Peter Senge (organizational learning), Edgar Schein (corporate culture) and Jeffrey Pfeffer (commitment), to name only the most prominent, have all harped on the need for sound people practices in companies.

Since many of these practices have been suggested by some of the best thinkers in management and organizations and are covered in any management course from the undergraduate to the MBA level, the obvious question is why they aren’t done by most companies. (Only one Filipino company, Jollibee, came out in the top 20 employers in the Hewitt report.) A couple of reasons come to mind. The first is short-term thinking. Because companies often obsess about the next quarter’s financial results, the patient work of building people is pushed aside. Much of people development is a lot like gardening – choosing seedlings carefully (selection and hiring), ensuring a nurturing climate (work environment and corporate culture), watering the plants regularly (pay and benefits), and making sure sunlight (open communication and coaching) and fertilizer (training and development) are appropriately given. How many managers will make the time or spend the money for such “soft” stuff when the “hard” numbers is what they are rewarded for? How many companies realize that solid long-term financial results depend on consistently effective people practices?

The second reason, and the one I believe is at the bottom of it all, is what I would call the “resource mindset”. Many companies do not become great places to work in because when they consider “human resources,” they tend to focus more on the “resource” rather than the “human” aspect. A resource, after all, is too often simply meant to be bought, used, expended and discarded once we’re done with it. If people feel used they will never be truly committed.

I suggest that managers look at people less as resources and more as human beings with minds and hearts which can be nurtured and inspired to accomplish great things. Companies need to view what they spend on people as investments, rather than mere costs to be constantly minimized. Then, we will see high-commitment workplaces becoming the norm rather than the exception.