Troubleshooters.Com and Steve Litt's HR Tips Present

The Route to a Productive Workforce

Copyright (C) 2007 by Steve Litt



Here's how you get a productive workforce:
  1. Respect their dignity
  2. Respect their intelligence
  3. Respect their time
  4. Respect their money
  5. THEN demand loyalty and performance
If it's really that simple, why do so many organizations fail so miserably? Probably because they break most or all of the preceding five rules.

Right about now you're probably asking "who's this Steve Litt, and what makes him an authority?"

I'm Steve Litt. I created the Universal Troubleshooting Process (UTP). I created and license UTP courseware, as well as teaching the UTP onsite. I've written five books on troubleshooting: Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting, Troubleshooting: Just the Facts, "Troubleshooting: Tools, Tips and Techniques", "Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist", and "The Manager's Guide to Technical Troubleshooting".

As a contract software developer since 1984, I've seen many IT shops -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've seen an enthusiastic project manager lead a crew into quickly creating best of breed legal software. At that same shop, I saw new owners move in, alienate everyone, and then finally chop-shop the company. I've seen a company with revenues of a half billion dollars per year send their employees on "treasure hunts" as a "team building exercise". Fortunately that program of the month died a quick and quiet death after the first treasure hunt. At that same company I saw a site manager, overseeing over 50 technologists, lead them to happily and successfully complete projects the home office said would be impossible.

Much of Human Resources is complex. Government regulation.  Selection and staffing. Compensation and benefits. Dispute resolution.

But developing a motivated and enthusiastic workforce isn't rocket science. I've seen it done many times. People want to be motivated and productive, if only they're allowed to. Trouble is, all too many organizations erect barriers to motivation and productivity. Most of those barriers stem from violation of one of the following principles:
  1. Respect their dignity
  2. Respect their intelligence
  3. Respect their time
  4. Respect their money
  5. THEN demand loyalty and performance
It's not rocket science. Read on...

Respect Their Dignity

Have you ever called your software developers "techies"? Have you heard them calling you "suits" or "pointy haired bosses"? That stuff has to stop.

When management calls their technologists "techies", the underlying message is that technologists are replaceable cogs with little social acumen and paltry knowledge of or interest in the company or industry.

Once management starts thinking that way, it shows in their treatment of employees. Software developers should be encouraged to meet with end users to develop good specs and software, but all too often software developers are forbidden from meeting end users, for fear they'll commit a social or business blunder. So instead, the users' software requirements are filtered through the customer's manager, your company's salesman, vice president, and project manager before getting to your software developer. Is it any wonder the final product doesn't meet the customer's needs? Is it any wonder that technologists' morale and productivity is low?

Part of dignity is acceptance. Develop a culture of acceptance, regardless of age, gender, race or religion. Let them know that bigotry and sexual harassment are not accepted, nor is general harassment for any reason. I once saw a group of workers use a scissors to cut off the tie worn by a co-worker with cerebral palsy. Yeah, they paid him for the tie, but bullies belong in 4th grade, not in the workplace.

Part of dignity is trust. Develop a culture of trust, not micromanagement. The employee required to get an OK for every little subtask will be slow and unenthusiastic. The employee given reasonable freedom in deciding how to do his or her job can accomplish miracles.

You hired yourr employees to be experts at what they do. Let them do it!

Also, develop a culture of gratitude. When the network administrator connects the newest regional office with two days notice, his boss should thank him. The thank you needn't be dramatic -- it just needs to be sincere. Posters, Tshirts and parties may or may not be helpful, bonuses probably would be, especially if the job involved work far beyond normal. However, don't bonus anyone if you can't bonus everyone who slaved away to get it done. Workers hate it when the boss or the star gets all the credit.

Respect Their Intelligence

Point 10 of W. Edwards Deming's 14 points tells us to "eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets from the workforce." Slogans like those cutsie posters showing various animals first pulling in different directions and then in the same direction, with a caption like "it's easier when we all pull together."

All members of the American workforce graduated fourth grade long ago. They don't need cartoons to tell them how to behave, and they know propaganda when they see it. The poster's true meanings are:
  1. You're not cooperating.
  2. You don't know you're not cooperating.
If there's a cooperation problem, the cause is probably either an incentive problem, a systematic problem, or a staffing problem. Posters won't fix it.

How many organizations tell their employees "we want you to be entrepreneurial", all the while limiting raises to 7% even for the most productive. Employees know what an entrepeneur is. If the employee wanted to do all the work, take all the risks, and take all the money, he'd have his own business. Making an employee work like a business owner to get a paycheck might be acceptable, especially in today's economy. Asking him to believe he's being entrepeneurial is a gross insult to his intelligence.

Lose the touchy-feely programs of the month. No silly team building exercises. Your employees stopped going on treasure hunts in grade school. Instead, give the team a real problem, real authority to solve the problem, and real compensation as a team when they solve it. They're smart enough to do the rest.

There's no quicker way to ruin morale than to treat the workforce like they're stupid. No matter how bad the job market, no matter how great their salaries, from the day their intelligence is disrespected, they'll be looking elsewhere, and all too soon you'll be breaking in their replacement.

It's easy to respect their intelligence. It costs nothing. It takes no extra effort. It requires only changing a habit in the corporate culture. It's low hanging fruit.

Respect Their Time

The PC-Repairman/Network-Administrator at one of my customers worked 48 consecutive hours to make a deadline for a big project rollout. After completing the project he took the next morning off. The bosses scolded him for missing work. He stuck around for awhile, but was never really productive for that company again.

Twenty-somethings have social lives, and those social lives are vital to subsequent marriage and children. Thirty-somethings and forty-somethings have children to take care of. Those above fifty have either spouses they want to (finally) spend some time with, or they have social lives.

Everybody's time is valuable.

Take the salesperson who's told to sell all day and travel all night, four days a week, and then show up for work on Friday. The salesperson's spouse will make him or her quit, or if the salesperson is single, he or she will be free enough to quit in order to have a social life.

It's tempting sometimes, isn't it. Tempting to have the software developer deliver backup tapes to the offsite vault after a hard day's work, instead of paying a courier or secretary. It's tempting to have the network admin work way into the night installing Windows on desktop computers rather than hiring a computer technician to do it. By heaping ever more tasks on overworked salaried employees instead of hiring new people to do that additional work, the organization always saves money. This quarter.

Next quarter might be different. The overworked employee gets angry and quits, so a less qualified person is hired at a higher salary. If you're lucky.

Perhaps next quarter the overworked employee burns out, causing a workers comp claim or maybe even a lawsuit. Other employees see what happened, and they start looking, even in the worst of job markets.

Time is money, and with a salaried employee it's tempting to get every last cent out of him or her. It's a false economy. The truly productive organization respects their employees' time.

Respect Their Money

Pay them according to the value they add. Yes, really. Even if five years ago you got the employee at a bargain basement rate during a recession, pay him or her commensurate with the value he or she adds. For gosh sakes, don't pay him or her less than you pay new hires, just because "you can". Keeping all those secrets just gets everyone nervous, and sooner or later the wronged employee finds out. If he or she is adding value to you, the employee can probably add value elsewhere -- maybe even at your competitor's organization.

If the employee is expected to use his or her personal car for company business, compensate enough to cover gas, repairs, wear and tear, and the added insurance. If they're expected to wear $800.00 suits, pay them accordingly.

Don't treat employees' personal credit cards as the company's personal bank. If you can't issue them company credit cards, at least  make it trivially easy for them to fill out expense reports, don't sweat loss of receipts for small items, and deliver reimbursement checks promptly.

THEN Demand Loyalty and Performance

Once you respect their dignity, intelligence, time and money, good employees become productive and loyal. If they've been in the workforce awhile and worked elsewhere, good employees become very loyal.

Not everyone is cut out to be a good employee. Some people really are entreneurs and resent being bossed. These people should have their own business -- they shouldn't be your employee. Some people have a drug or alcohol problem that sabotages their work. That's their problem and it shouldn't be yours. Some people feel entitled, and believe that you should pay them just for putting in the hours, regardless of how little they accomplish or how many errors they make. They belong in the welfare line, not in your company. Some people create conflict everywhere they go, with arguments, sexual harrassment, bigotry, political backstabbing, or prima donna acts. No matter how good they are at their actual work, they're a liability to the organization. Let them work for someone else.

Once you've given your employees the respect and culture to free up their productivity, the last step is to get rid of the dead wood. It's hard to work consecutive overnighters when others get a paycheck just for showing up, or maybe for showing up and making trouble. You're in Human Resources -- you know the steps to legally get rid of dead wood. More important, you know how to test and check prospective employees to minimize the chance of their being dead wood. Don't hire questionable people. If you're really short of people and can't find additional suitable people, pay extra money for extra work to your excellent employees. Or hire contractors you can dump at a moment's notice.


People want to be treated decently. They want you to respect their dignity, intelligence, money and time. That's not too much to ask. Perhaps your competitors lower costs by not respecting money and time. Let them -- their turnover will cost them a fortune, and you'll be on top.

Not every employee cuts the mustard, even when given the necessary respect and resources. Those who don't fit in should be cut loose, for your organization's sake and for the sake of the other employees. You're an expert at staffing. Make sure new hires, once respected, will produce.

Follow this advice, and your workforce will differentiate you from your competition.



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