U.S. Rank-and-File Workers Feel Undervalued by Managers

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 16, 2010
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Rank-and-file employees—not top management—bear the greatest responsibility for ensuring the quality of their company’s products and customer service, but company leaders value them least, most U.S. workers say.

Those sentiments were among the findings of an “Employees First” phone survey conducted in May and June 2010 in the U.S. with 704 people employed in the private sector at organizations with 300 or more employees. HCL Technologies, a global IT services company in India, commissioned the survey.

The survey tested the theories of HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar, author of Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down (Harvard Business Press, 2010).

Among the findings:

  • 52 percent of respondents overall said rank-and-file employees are most responsible for the quality of products and services; 60 percent of those in the $30,000 to $50,000 annual salary range think this is so.
  • 60 percent of workers at mid-size and large companies said customers are the most valued group there; 20 percent said management is most valued; 15 percent said employees are.
  • 55 percent of workers overall said management practices need to change for companies to confront challenges effectively. That percentage is even higher for workers in their 30s and 40s.
  • Nearly half of workers think rank-and-file employees are the least valued group by their company leadership.

“This dismissiveness when it comes to employees is counterproductive,” Nayar said in a news release, pointing out that those employees who interact with customers generally “know where the real problems lie and how to fix them.”

In fact, 59 percent of workers said they often see problems at their companies that management is unaware of; 23 percent frequently observe such problems. And a slim majority of workers at mid-size and large companies said their manager has asked for their advice about a business problem.

Sixty-three percent of workers said that when they bring a problem to their supervisor’s attention, they work together to find solutions, but the survey findings suggest that income level might be a factor influencing who gets a manager’s listening ear: Those earning $100,000 or more are far more likely than those in lower-income brackets to say that their direct manager works with them to solve a business problem.

One-fifth of workers—especially those in low-income brackets—said when they present a business problem to their supervisor, the problem is not addressed despite promises to the contrary, the survey found. And one in 10 workers said their manager takes control when problems are presented and solves the problem without employee input. Low-paid workers were twice as likely to report to this type of manager.

Nayar—who spoke at the June 30, 2010, general session of the Society for Human Resource Management 62nd Annual Conference & Exposition in San Diego—espouses the theory that empowering employees is key to an organization’s growth and success.

Nayar claims that giving employees the power to take action on behalf of customers, and making management as accountable to employees as employees are to management, increased HCL’s revenue by 3.6 times and its operating profit by 3.4 times. He says the company was one of the few in the world to grow during the 2008-09 recession.

The concept of the importance of employee empowerment to an organization’s success is not new.

Wegman’s food chain is one example of a company that allows its employees to take actions on behalf of customers, such as retrieving a desired product that’s not on the grocery shelf, according to an October 2009 HR Magazine article, “Treating Employees Like Customers.”

In addition, empowerment can mean listening to, and seeking advice from, employees about a business problem.

“Leaders must recognize, particularly in the era of social media and the democratization it brings to all dimensions of society, that the key to success and growth is getting employees to tell you what’s really going on,” Nayar said in the news release.

Social media tools have the potential to empower employees, according to academic research.

Findings based on a survey conducted with 253 Chinese work professionals and their use of instant messaging (IM) tools at work to empower employees found that IMs have the potential to contribute to work teams by shaping social networks and encouraging knowledge sharing on the job, which heightens team performance.

There is a need, Nayar says, for employees to believe that their managers are willing to listen to them and take action, but the survey results “suggest that most companies are just not close enough to that level of democracy.” The findings, he said, serve as a warning to organizations and their leaders.

“American workers seem to have an intuitive sense that current command-and-control management structures may be outdated and that companies would do better if they were to shift their focus to empowering employees to solve customer problems—in part by making management accountable to the employees, who are the real creators of value, just as those employees are responsible to management,” Nayar said.

A few glimmers of hope emerged from the survey—78 percent of respondents are confident that their company’s top management can create an environment that values employee ideas and suggestions, and 72 percent are confident that management can create an environment of transparency.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Articles:

Nayar: Rethink Management-Employee Relationship, HR News, June 30, 2010

Leaders Must Learn by Doing, HR News,June 24, 2008

CEOs Shift Leadership Approach in Tough Times, SHRM Online Business Leadership Discipline, Aug. 13, 2008

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