Alison Maitland: Treat people well and they won't 'slack'

Productivity would plummet if employees were always looking over their shoulders

Sunday 30 October 2011 23:48
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Trust is at the heart of a productive relationship between employer and employee. The idea, floated in a new report to the Government, that employers should be able to sack underperforming staff more easily threatens to destroy that trust – and with it the productivity of other employees.

Good employers have nothing to fear from employment legislation such as the unfair dismissal rules targeted by Adrian Beecroft, a venture capitalist and author of the report. Legislation is there primarily to prevent bad employers from exploiting people or treating them unfairly.

A big danger of Mr Beecroft's proposal, as he acknowledges, is that employers could use it to get rid of people they dislike. This might well include employees who challenge management and question how business is done. It could end up being a charter against whistleblowing. Given the dangers of "groupthink", highlighted by the financial crisis, do we really want to make it harder for employees to speak out when they see things going wrong?

Productivity would plummet if employees were constantly looking over their shoulders in fear of being dismissed without explanation. An atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion at work is not in employers' interests. High-performing bosses today know that they will get the most out of people by giving them the tools, setting them clear objectives, and trusting them to get on with the job.

In a survey for our new book, Future Work, 95 per cent of managers agreed that "good leadership is about empowering people". Our research shows that companies adopting innovative, more efficient ways of working are also more likely to value creativity, to trust and empower their people, and to assume they are self-motivated.

So why do some employees end up being "slackers"? Is it an inherent fault? Or is it because they do not feel valued, because their views are not taken into account, and because their manager treats them like a child rather than an adult? There are two sides to every employment relationship. Addressing the causes of someone's underperformance would be better for UK Plc than adding another person to the costly ranks of unemployed.

The world of work is changing rapidly in the digital age. The global knowledge economy is blurring the lines between employment and self-employment. Companies increasingly draw on freelance agents and contractors. These relationships have to be based on trust and rewards for results – not hours at work, which may or may not be productive. Legislation must keep up with these radical changes – but not by reverting to the old "them and us" confrontation between employers and employees, as this proposal risks doing.

The writer is co-author with Peter Thomson of 'Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work'

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