Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Employer vs Employee

I've specifically titled this post using the versus connector between employer and employee as it seems that this important relationship is stuck in this adversarial position, and that my belief is that America will never be "great" again, if that is truly a goal based in reality and not just rhetoric, until the dynamics of employment changes.

Obviously, there has always been friction between employers and employees.  Employers seek the most production possible while paying the least possible compensation, while employees invariably feel underpaid and underappreciated.  In addition, the unfortunate boom and bust cycles of our economy create times when one side has the upper hand over the other.  When the economy is in recession, employers can reduce benefits and/or eliminate wage increases with the veiled threat that an employee can be easily replaced by someone unemployed, someone willing to take almost anything rather than be without work.  Conversely, when the economy is booming, employees are more easily able to find better pay, working conditions and opportunity, putting pressure on the employer to pay, at times, more than the production might be worth.

In both situations, phrases such as disloyalty and profit over people emanate as readily as humidity in the tropics.

Of course, for much of recorded history, men and women worked to live, literally.  From the moment they awoke, to the moment they fell asleep, mankind spent their time searching for food for themselves and those of their group, seeking shelter or improving the condition of said shelter, and avoiding the multitude of dangers that existed, and from which there was scant protection.

As the eons progressed and our ancestors moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle, a new relationship began to emerge.  Creating permanent settlements also meant protecting these settlements from those unwelcome, which also inspired the concept of owning the land.  While it was easy to claim new lands in the name of one's home country, as if the land didn't exist before being "discovered", especially since the native inhabitants had a completely different relationship with the land, it became much harder to dismiss inhabitants when they looked and sounded the same as oneself.  Fortunately, those with money and power were able to create concepts like birth rights, aristocracy, divine laws, and other such artificially created distinctions that, along with bigger swords and hired thugs, enabled land barons to own great swaths of territory.  Still, those who worked the land did so mostly for sustenance.

Over time, as settlements evolved into people living together as individuals as opposed to chattel, bartering among the tradesmen and businesses and customers became more formalized, and values were placed on goods, services, and ultimately, the labor needed to create or provide those goods and services.  Now, rather than hunting and scavenging for food, people could "buy" their food from someone who specialized in growing it, or perhaps from someone who purchased the goods from many different suppliers then brought it to the customers, in the form of carts, and then centralized the location of the products in stores located where the people lived.  

Those of you who know more history than I, might also know when the terms employee and employer first were coined.  I only spent a few minutes searching and found information suggesting they are from French words originating in the 1820's.  If reasonably accurate, that means that this dynamic relationship which is the basis of the vast majority of work in the "modern" world, is still in its infancy.

To be more specific, if we use 10,000 years as the approximate time when humans began to practice sedentary agriculture, the employee/employer relationship represents 2-5% of that time.  And, if we use 200,000 years as the beginning point of when homo sapiens emerged in Africa, the relationship has been around for .1-.25% of that time.  That is decimal (.1) percent folks.  Or, using an hour as the time since homo sapiens emerged, the relationship is about half a second old.

So, what is my point?

Perhaps that we are still trying figure out this relatively new concept.  We know that we do not want to return to the days when calling out sick might get you fired.  The days of forced child labor, 12, 16 even 18 hours shifts in poorly ventilated sweat shops.  But we also know that businesses can not function with an unreliable work force.  Rules and standards are required on both sides.  A power of balance needs to be established, which, while it might create temporary swings in favor of one or the other, leave room for a return to an even footing as quickly as possible.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to state that the balance of power from the recent recession has not returned to an even keel.  In fact, one might even suggest that the balance of power towards the employer side of the equation has been with us since the 1980's.  Certainly, stagnating middle class wages coupled by the flow of more wealth in the hands of a smaller percentage of people could be interpreted as a consequence of this imbalance.

But that is macroeconomics, the stuff of classroom debates and never ending partisan politics.

What about the everyday relationship that exists in the majority of businesses, big and small.  So often we hear complaints from the business community that there aren't enough qualified people to fill job openings, and that too many of those employed do not work hard enough while expecting more benefits, and more money.  I receive multiple job alerts everyday from Indeed, based on the many different profiles I have created.  Clearly, there are many open jobs out there, and not just $12 per hour and less, jobs.  One of my profiles sets a minimum salary of $50K per year; it produces new jobs everyday.

This seems to verify the employer complaints, while also signalling that our education system is not preparing our youth for today's more specialized job market.  Of course, employers who expect a perfect match for their job requirements, some of which feature so encompassing a list of attributes, that the "perfect" candidate may not exist, or would not consider the job based on the compensation package being offered, sometimes ask for more than they will ever get.  Obviously, all employers expect to engage in some training of a new employee, but perhaps, rather than paper rejecting an applicant because all the boxes aren't checked, employers might evaluate the person as much as the paper.  Is there room in the employee/employer dynamic to value a person's ability to analyze problems, evaluate situations, and prioritize actions?  Perhaps that is a part of the problem as well.  All kinds of jobs, all kinds of applicants, but never the twain shall meet as more and more employers turn to automated searches to sift through the candidates while more and more job seekers blast out resumes.

Also, do employers want YES men who do what they are told, or thinkers who can differentiate between guidelines and rules, and choose the correct course of action even when it differs from an established protocol?  Assuming employers want some from each category, are there conscious choices being made to nurture those who fall into the latter group, or are those people suppressed at every turn while still being counted on to find a new solution to an old problem?  Have we not all seen an employee who ingratiates themselves to their bosses in order to gain a promotion or salary increase while an employee who works to improve the daily processes, is passed over due to a lack of self promotion, or perhaps even a disregard for diplomacy?  When employees feel that merit is not the primary reason for advancement, it leaves personal pride as the drive to continue to do a better job.  When that begins to fade or is crushed, what is left?  Atlas Shrugged?

There are countless millions of Americans who work hard each and every day yet still feel that they exist one mistake at work, one health crisis, one unexpected accident away from financial ruin. Clearly, this angst was one of the forces behind the unexpected result of last November's election.
Only time will tell if a continued transfer of wealth to the top and a reduction in the safety nets will increase the concern of the working class American, or add to his/her dilemma.    

In the meantime, loyalty is a two way street.  Employees who expect job security must work every day to earn their salary.  Employers who expect daily hard work, must treat their employees as people, not just labor costs that can be slashed without considering all other options.

As I said earlier, the employer/employee relationship is relative new.  Yet, at the same time, it is undergoing tremendous change!  We can work remotely from home.  Soon we make even work from space!  If this dynamic is going to work, there must be a trust created from each side.  That is the challenge I see moving forward.  And, frankly, it is a challenge that neither side seems to recognize or value.  Trust that a job is a privilege, not an entitlement.  And trust that without the employee, there is no good or service to be provided.          

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