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Business Advice

Progressive people-management practices

The human factor is critical to the success of a business
CATS Classified In The Straits Times - June 28, 2011
By: Sheila Lim
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Progressive people-management practices

If you’re an employer, here’s a tip for you – catch “Undercover Boss” – a television series currently showing. The programme features head honchos from large conglomerates in the US going incognito to take up various jobs at their branches, subsidiaries or franchise outlets.

The objective of their undercover mission is for them to work alongside their employees, learn more about what their jobs entail, what kinds of obstacles they face in getting their jobs done, how they are faring at work, and ultimately, get a feel of the ground and seek a better understanding of how the company is run. 

After this stint, the “undercover boss” returns to headquarters, calls in the employees he had worked with on various assignments, reveals his true identity, and holds personal discussions with each of them on ways to make improvements in their tasks and work environment. He also commends and rewards outstanding individuals who had shown good aptitude and attitude in tackling challenging tasks.

Such exercises seem to be more practical for large corporations with outlets that are widely dispersed and therefore more difficult to monitor. Nevertheless, even if employers can’t literally step into their employees’ shoes, it’s always good for them to step down from their ivory towers, listen to the people and help them resolve their grouses. That’s because the efforts made to build a healthy corporate culture will always pay off – in terms of happier and more productive workers, better performance, and results. 

Feeling the ground

The first of the series featured the CEO of a waste management company who took on several “dirty jobs”, such as sorting trash at a recycling plant, collecting trash from households, removing waste from portable toilets and picking up rubbish from public places. Through these undercover duties, he better understood some of the frustrations and difficulties his employees have to bear in their daily tasks, and how managers, supervisors, company policies and work procedures affect their performance.

These are the discoveries he made after taking on a series of tasks in various positions:

  • Some of the tasks performed by certain workers are exceedingly laborious and difficult.
  • An administrative officer is finding it extremely stressful to manage a multitude of challenging tasks all by herself.
  • One of the workers is frustrated about having to adhere to an inflexible company policy imposed by an over-zealous supervisor but she can’t do anything about it.
  • Certain employees have to work under deplorable conditions. For example, a female trash collector uses a water bottle when she has to answer the call of nature because she is fearful of being admonished by her supervisor if she does not complete her route within a given time. 

Issues such as those mentioned above are common in many workplaces. But because they may have a substantial impact on staff morale, productivity and attitudes, they would generally be viewed as important concerns by companies with progressive people management practices.  

What’s also demonstrated in this show is that the problems identified by the CEO could be resolved through improvements in areas like recruitment, selection, appraisal, incentive and compensation systems, and job matching and design.

Putting people first

Many organisations in the service industries are now bemoaning the difficulty of meeting their staffing requirements because of the tight labour market and hike in foreign worker levy.

The situation isn’t likely to change any time soon, so employers can either wring their hands in frustration or adapt their people-management practices to the new realities.

People-management practices encompass aspects like employee satisfaction and commitment, and organisational culture. The list of practices ranges from recruitment and appraisal, to incentive and compensation systems. Important elements in progressive or “high performance” people-management practices are the acquisition and development of employee skills (including selection, induction, training and use of appraisals); and job design (including skill flexibility and job responsibility).

Other management practices like investing in technology and innovation are vital to the success of business organisations, but these aren’t as critical to enhancing performance, compared to how they manage their employees.

Some companies can be profitable despite making little or no use of progressive people management practices. But these companies are likely to be in the production sectors, where tasks require little input from the employees other than sustained effort; or in small service operations competing on price rather than quality.

To bring the business forward, however, most organisations must be committed to excellence in quality standards, and that means continually enhancing service levels. In this respect, a positive “psychological contract” between employer and employee is fundamental to improving employee commitment and business performance.  To put it simply, how companies manage their employees is crucial to success.



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