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Six ways to engage employees and avoid a Google-like walkout

Six ways to engage employees and avoid a Google-like walkout
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The walkout last week by thousands of Google employees across their global network, and the CEO’s well-intentioned response and apology, illustrates how organizations miss the obvious in fostering positive relationships with their employees.

So, what is the obvious? Well, from my perspective it is to understand how their employees feel, why they feel the way they do, and what they expect from them.

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In the work I do in organizational dynamics, I have found that most organizations are pretty clear about expectations they have of their employees. Most expect people to join, stay, work to their full potential, be engaged and refer the organization to customers or other employees. These expectations are even more critical today, and for the foreseeable future, given talent shortages.

Well, to be sure, the brass at Google certainly must understand what their employees expect of them. From what has been reported, employees have made it clear: They expect diversity, inclusion, fairness, input, and transparency. Perhaps the most fundamental expectation is for the organization to reinstitute the abandoned principle of “Don’t be evil.” This motto, translated in the employment relationship, means putting a stop to harassment and abuse; from a reputation perspective, it means to be socially and ethically responsible.

The question that the board at Google should ask is, “Why did it have to take a walkout of thousands of employees to discover this?” The board also should challenge its human resources folks, the people responsible for risk management, and their audit committee on what they knew. If they claim they were not aware of the depth or breadth of the discontent, they are either negligent or they covered it up. As evidenced by the #MeToo exposures, in most cases situations were open secrets for years, and in some cases decades.

In fairness, Google has been at the vanguard in attracting and retaining employees, providing them with every conceivable benefit under the assumption that these often-frilly perks addressed their expectations.

No doubt, as with most large organizations, Google conducted engagement surveys and introduced programs in diversity, inclusion, abuse, harassment, sensitivity and mindfulness. In most organizations, these surveys and programs yield few material results. The reason for this is that they are usually superficial and complex, viewed as gobbledygook and utilized mostly to provide a legal and/or public relations shield.

An even more significant likely reason for the Google walkout is that boss-to-subordinate relationships have become pretty much non-existent. My research has found that, for over two-thirds of North American workers, the only work-related interaction between boss and subordinate is the dreaded-by-both annual performance review and when things go south. Also, for many, employees are being micro-controlled; retail employees at Wells Fargo, for example, were constantly harped at, some multiple times per day, to fulfill dictated quotas.

The absence of face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice, interactions is a huge factor in bosses not hearing what they need to hear. Because Google is a technology company, it is likely that technology is a substitute for human interactions. 

In a Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence/Faas Foundation initiative, called “Emotion Revolution in the Workplace,” and a Mental Health America/Faas Foundation study, called “Mind the Workplace,” we found, from the combined surveys of over 40,000 American workers across all sectors, common stress factors that a majority endure. These stress factors are consistent with what Google employees reportedly have exposed.

From these studies, we have established six conditions necessary for engagement, which, when embedded into company culture, will avoid situations like the Google walkout:

  • Trust
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Clear relationship value exchanges 
  • A sense of purpose
  • A sense of efficacy, and 
  • The ability to speak to power.

Over my career I have created these conditions at organizations I have led. I have also had labor relations and human resources under my portfolio of responsibilities. For the first 23 years, I worked in a unionized environment, and then 10 years in a franchise model. Both organizations had more than 40,000 employees in multiple locations in Canada. I am most proud that, under my watch, there was not a single strike, walkout or grievance that went to arbitration or civil action that related to employment.

This is despite our going through numerous cultural integrations, restructurings and culling of staff, most because of performance, ethical breaches or inappropriate behaviors. We set high expectations and held accountabilities. 

In all of our decisions, we minimized the negative impact on employees. We constantly gauged how employees felt and, more importantly, understood why they felt the way they did. As a result, we enjoyed the trust, respect and loyalty of employees, which resulted in sustainable top and bottom line performance that exceeded our benchmark comparable organizations. 

The walkout at Google should be a wake-up call for all boards and CEOs. Given the risks attached to attracting and retaining talent, and the impact it can have on enterprise value, not understanding how or why your employees feel the way they do could be fatal.

Andrew Faas is a public voices fellow at Yale University and former executive with Canada’s two largest corporations, Weston/Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart. He is author of “From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire” (Rcj Press Inc. 2017).