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Friday, January 27, 2012

Shangri-La in Brooklyn

I'm reading a lot, these last couple of days, about employee happiness and fulfillment, and how so many companies miss the boat when it comes to engaging their best and brightest people. And as someone who's been in the corporate world for a few decades now, I can wholeheartedly vouch for the truth of that.

I also spend a good deal of time, nowadays, explaining that people should 1) determine what it is that they love to do so much that they'd do it for nothing, and 2) find out what they do so well that employers will pay them well to do it...and then go out and get a job that provides both...because if you're being paid to do what you love so much that you'd do it for nothing, you're not "going to work" each day, you're "going to play!"

Does that make a difference? The single best company I ever worked for, in terms of how they treated their staff, and the loyalty and enthusiasm that the staff gave back, was a very small -- perhaps 500 employees? -- savings bank in Brooklyn, NY. Being in Human Resources back then, I would conduct the orientation sessions for new employees each Monday. And the first thing I would do would be to congratulate the staffers on having joined the bank...because "we're a special place. We only hire the best. And if you're here today, it's because we recognized that you are special, and we're very pleased that you're here with us today!"

This, by the way, was no lie. I had been told the same thing when I was hired, and it had been proven to me every day that I worked there, so that it was easy for me to be utterly truthful, and tell newly hired staff what I had experienced myself. Quality performance was recognized and rewarded. Good ideas were encouraged, implemented and rewarded. Staff members felt valued and energized. The result? Loyalty, enthusiasm, drive, integrity and a vast amount of superlative work...and a great deal of enjoyment, at the same time

My own supervisor said it best. "You can work hard, or you can work hard and have fun," he said. "I'd rather work hard and have fun!" And we did both.

One of the most memorable things was the fairness with which employees were treated. There were no arbitrary -- read willfully stupid -- decisions made by senior management, and the culture was one of respect: respect between employees, between employees and management, and between employees, management and customers. Why? Call it enlightened self-interest. It was in our interest to ensure that the bank was well run, and that customers were treated with unfailing courtesy and patience...because the customers could take their money anywhere, and what made them keep it with us, and keep us successful, was the outstanding treatment they received.

In short, I "went to play" every day. I wish I could say the same for even some of the other companies I've worked for over the years. In most, however, staff were treated like mushrooms...kept in the dark and buried in s**t, as the saying goes. That one, lone little bank was the only organization I ever worked for that functioned in this caring, enlightened way. Why? I don't know, other than to observe that there are a great many incredibly stupid people out there, and lots of them even run huge, multinational companies.

But if companies want to be successful, and function smoothly and well, and particularly if they're management consulting firms that are supposed to teach other companies how to treat their employees, they just might want to consider treating their own employees as true human resources...isn't that what employees are supposed to be? Why else was the term invented?