Treating Workers Badly Hurts Business

Larry Price
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Wednesday - October 06, 2010
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Some workplace unfairness is blatant. Supervisors can be bullies and intimidating, some yelling constantly at subordinates. The record shows that employees of abusive supervisors are more likely to quit their jobs, to report lower job and life satisfaction and higher stress. This is true in both the private and public sectors. The abusive practices seem to increase in the private sector whenever a new CEO is hired. In the public sector, it happens when there is an election or some high-ranking official retires to take on a new job.

The City and County of Honolulu is going through that process right now, and in several months the state of Hawaii will have a new governor, which will trigger a ripple effect around the state. It’s one of the unintended consequences of having so many elections in a democratic government. It’s no fun for the rank and file.

The big question is: Why treat employee fairly? There are many reasons that managers and new supervisors should be fair, some more obvious than others. The old standby excuse justifying or rationalizing abusive behavior, “What’s fairness got to do with it?” is at best lame. As management guru Peter Drunker once said, “They are not employees, they’re people.”

What’s not so obvious is that employees’ perceptions of fairness also have important organizational ramifications. Simply put, when employees, public or private, are treated fairly, it has a direct relation to enhanced employee commitment and satisfaction with the organization, job and leaders. How they are treated will dictate how they treat customers and the public.

Another reason it’s a good idea to treat employees fairly during these tumultuous times is we have an increasingly litigious work force. Realistically, few societies rely solely on a manager’s sense of ethics or sense of fairness to do what’s right by employees. That’s why employees have rights according to the law. Specifically, laws like Title VIKI give employees numerous rights. I won’t list them here, but be warned there are 19 on the books right now and more on the way.

And while this will grate on the nerves of a lot of managers, Hawaii has witnessed cases where workers are brought to Hawaii under false pretenses, fish canneries in the South Pacific run like slave labor camps and, most recently, the U.S. Department of Labor threatening to take over Hawaii’s enforcement of workplace safety because of staffing concerns and other issues. Federal officials complain that Hawaii’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has only 12 compliance officers, well below the court mandated staffing requirement of 18! The state told federal officials that while that was true, the budget had to be balanced and there has not been an increase in work-place injuries. You would think the federal government would commend Hawaii’s Occupational Safety and Health Division for doing more with less. If anything, fewer visits from inspectors looking for violations of the law is a blessing, because visits from the Occupational Safety and Health Division affect productivity.

The law is not a foolproof guide to what’s fair and ethical. Hopefully during this “transition” political period, incoming management will remember Drucker’s words.

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