It is not the best of times for entrepreneurs. The economy seems to be going nowhere fast, consumers are spending less, and the cost of doing business seems to rise daily.
It is not the worst of times for entrepreneurs. Americans are still splurging on the things they really want; demographic trends (lots of kids are being born, more people are living longer) give rise to new business opportunities; and technology is more accessible and affordable than ever.
And then there’s the employee issue. At the moment you may think you have the upper hand. When times are tough, employers usually do. As the unemployment rate climbs, employees tend to stay on jobs they hate and lay low, not making many demands. So it may seem like the best of times. But, believe me, this too shall pass.
Those of us with long memories recall a similar situation back in the ’90s. At the beginning of the decade, while a recession gripped the nation, employers were in control. Raise the minimum wage? “No way!” Affordable health insurance coverage for all? “Not a chance!” Family-friendly policies like flex hours or work-at-home days? “You’re lucky you have a job.” Sound familiar? Many of you were employees then and can likely remember a boss or two with that “who cares about you?” attitude.
The advent of the dotcom boom changed that fast. As the economy exploded and the unemployment rate fell, the balance of power shifted from boss to worker. Businesses were born at a record pace; many of them started by people who, remembering the arrogance of their former bosses, created a new kind of workplace, one where employees were treated with respect, got better pay (and sometime stock options), and where collaboration ruled.
Sure, I know the boom became a bust, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t leave a legacy. Employees now expect to be treated more fairly. And they will reward that behavior with loyalty. They’ll work hard for you because they know it’s not all about you.
However, some of you must have missed that lesson. I’ve been hearing rumblings (again) against a proposed minimum-wage hike and health-care reform. I have friends who work for what can only be considered “retro” (and not in a good way) bosses: They don’t like to be questioned. They expect their employees to make sacrifices while they fly to golf games in their corporate jets. It’s all work and no reward for the workers, who are afraid of making a mistake. Or maybe they’re just afraid of the boss. And while this approach might work for now, once the economy takes a turn for the better (and, make no mistake, it will), where will you be? Those employees will be out the door faster than you can replace them (and don’t forget the cost of training new staff). Bottom line: That’s no way to run a business.
If any of this sounds like you, it’s not too late to repent. (Little humor there, don’t send hate e-mails.) Seriously, though, in times like these you need your staff more than ever. So engage them. Ask for their input and suggestions. You may not have extra cash to reward them with, but you have an arsenal of “soft” benefits you can draw upon — the aforementioned flex time and work-at-home-days, monthly free lunches, some comp time after a particularly grueling project, just to mention a few.
Maybe I feel so strongly about this because I’m still a new entrepreneur. I remember what it’s like to be an employee, both the good and the bad parts. Think back to your worker days. What motivated you to try harder? What made you angry or disinterested? Did you respect your boss?
Now think about your staff. How motivated are they? Do they say yes to you because they’re afraid to say no? Are they trying to build a career, or is it just a j-o-b to them? The answers to those questions will help determine how easy your path to success is going to be. Your employees will never be as invested in your company as you are. After all, it’s your baby, not theirs. But your actions today will determine how strong your company will be in the long run. You can’t do it alone, so don’t alienate the very people who can best help you succeed.
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