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Farewell advice: Pay attention to two key issues

Motivate employees in new ways; be proactive about sexual harassment

Happy New Year 2018.

Ghosts and goblins are behind us. That big Turkey Day family dinner is behind us. December holidays with Santa Claus are now behind us, but the credit card bills will continue showing up. We now begin a new year, yet with many of the same business, political and human issues on the radar (and TV) screen.

Allow me then, in this final column I will author, to emphasize two management issues for reconsideration by managers who truly wish to face up to current challenges and not become the obsolete managers I recently wrote about.

Recognition and rewards

The topic that evokes the most questions has been motivation. The topic has been front and center in academic and popular literature for at least the past 70 years. Much of the research has been by psychologists, social psychologists and more recently among behavioral scientists in business schools. Until the 1950s most managers had been taught in some way that they were “kings” and their subjects were to obey at the risk of being penalized, at times harshly, or even being discharged.

One research team (Douglas McGregor) coined the term “Theory X” for this approach. Managers have slowly reduced its use “to motivate” employees. Some managers are holding on to this idea, however. McGregor and his team found that others adhered to a philosophy they referred to as “Theory Y” managers.

This style of manager was guided by behavioral ideas: People do not like to be told what to do and how; they want to know what is needed and be left alone to accomplish the job at hand. In return, there is an expectation of a “reward.”

One non-theoretical writer has spoken and written extensively about what rewards might be appropriate. Two of Bob Nelson’s books should be in your personal bookcase: 1001 Ways To Energize Employees and 1501 Ways to Reward Employees. (Workman Publishing Co.)

Rarely will you find Nelson suggesting that money alone will keep a person’s motivation level high. So what do most behaviorists suggest for motivating? Several key points remain at the center of the argument, regardless of the generation (age) of the person or group. First, what is needed in terms of action and why is it needed? No one likes to do routine work! Yet there is a lot of routine work to be done. So telling me why it needs to be done is an important issue. Make me realize that it is not merely routine. Maybe I even have some unique skill that I need to bring to bear on the effort.

I do not like to be told exactly how to do the job unless it is a totally new effort. Let me learn by discovering the best way to get the job done. That provides some challenge for me, and I am excited about a challenge! Most employees are similarly excited about challenges.

Second, does the manager even notice the effort? Yes, there are many ways of noticing, but the manager should tailor the recognition to the effort and the individual. Some efforts deserve to hear “Thanks, that was a good job on that particular task!” Other efforts may deserve more, and a multitude of ideas for this “more” are laid out in the Nelson books.

The key point of all is to tailor the recognition and reward to the effort completed and the individual. Each person has different emotional needs and expectations. Pay need not be involved. Individualize the situation. Now read Bob Nelson’s ideas (many “borrowed” from situations just like the ones you have.) You might think of these ideas as a buffet.

And now to the hot issue of the day!

Diversity, affirmative action and sexual harassment

Depending on where you are you will see varying degrees of diversity on the street, at McDonald’s or in Target stores. There is less diversity in rural areas. However, across the country more is noticeable. Go to any public university campus or a government office (at any level) and you are likely to find a larger degree of diversity.

Your father mostly would have seen people who look like him; you will not. Although most research has shown that diversity adds to the bottom line and provides better workplace decisions, we have seen in recent months several demonstrations against non-white people.

Although such actions are not the norm in business today, there has been heavy media attention to particular incidents. Politically this is a hot issue and could well become one on the production line or at the marina. Management has a responsibility to ensure a safe and secure workforce. People who are different from “us” bring needed skills to each company.

The increasing diversity comes in part from federal affirmative action regulations arising from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (known in Canada as employment equity). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed, in part, to ensure that affirmative action is achieved. There have been numerous court cases, as well as a presidential defunding effort to stymie the work of the EEOC. Although affirmative action has been controversial, it, as well as immigration policies, have increased the diversity in our labor markets.

Another historical diversity-related policy has been the reduction or removal of sexual harassment from the workplace. Arising from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC first issued regulatory guidance on the meaning and application of the legislation. Any unwanted action or activity of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, performance or work environment can be regarded as sexual harassment. It can occur between members of the opposite or same sex and between employees of the company or between employees and non-employees.

The EEOC has cited three situations in which sexual harassment might occur: If verbal or physical conduct toward an individual a) creates an intimidating, offensive or “hostile environment,” or b) unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work, or c) adversely affects an employee’s employment opportunities. The “hostile environment” has become most problematic for employers.

The 1980s saw numerous court cases arise out of the harassment interpretation. The issue lay relatively dormant until 2016 and this year, when the issues surfaced in an almost violent fashion. In this most recent episode of sexual harassment allegations the harassers have been in the public eye: a presidential contender, TV talking heads, opera conductors, a prospective senator, standing senators — you have seen the same reports and either were appalled or wondered what everyone was so upset about.

Most of the allegations were decades old, but harassment was more openly practiced then as such actions were initially being addressed.

Yet about 12,000 complaints are filed with the EEOC each year, often after settlements could not be reached at the company level. It is not an issue that you or your company can afford to disregard while sitting idly by and waiting for a charge. Even an allegation can damage an employee or cause great harm to a company’s brand.

What to do? If you have a human resources staff the company president should assign it to develop a companywide discussion of the issue and alert all staff that this is a behavior that will not be tolerated. NBC and others are doing this, but they have waited too late to avoid damage. It is risky for employers to take no action. The HR staff may have only minimal expertise in this area and must reach out to colleagues in HR associations for help.

Small employers may not have an HR staff and will need to rely either on local resources or consultants. (Consultants will pop up everywhere, so be sure those you consider have experience in harassment cases.) “Training” of all employees to identify inappropriate behavior is a good beginning after the company president has set forth a statement on policy and expectations. Many folks will be surprised that their actions may be offensive to others; peer discussions are part of any training that HR professionals develop.

A company that has not taken steps to prevent sexual harassment can face enormous costs. Legal fees, even if the company “wins” the case, are large, coupled with the brand damage. Get started now to develop your company strategy.

On a personal note, I appreciate your allowing me to come into your company and your personal space on a regular basis for several years and share my philosophy on management issues. I have enjoyed receiving e-mails and phone calls that seek more information as well as hearing about points of disagreement.

You will shortly have a new voice, and I hope you will be attentive to that person’s views. Don’t be obsolete. Find a weakness in your own efforts and work to improve. Management is a lifelong learning endeavor.

Jerald F. Robinson photo

Jerald F. Robinson

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue.



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