Road rules for work

By the time this article is published the
Government will have been decided. Thoughts will now be focused on where our leaders will take us.
We were told employment relations was an election issue and the policy contrast of the main parties couldn’t have been more different. In the final analysis, does it really matter? Regardless of how loud the electorate shouted, the fact remains that New Zealand is at crossroads as we enter the new millennium.
We stand now upon the brink of the knowledge economy — or at least that’s what many say we need.
When I started voting in the 1980s the theme wasn’t lot different. I was impressed by the hustings-thumping rhetoric of the need to turn logs into posts, or planks, or even furniture. Fifteen years later we’re still chasing the same dream, except now we’re talking about adding value to our grey matter instead of our green matter.
As I drive to work past mountains of logs on Wellington’s wharves, I wonder just how successful we were with the trees.
What happens in legislative sense in many ways is less important than how people behave and react to the legislative environment. Another way of putting it is how motives are perceived and how those perceptions are managed. successful workplace relationship between the employer and employee exists in an environment of trust and mutual dependence.
Regardless of the details of legislative change, the fact remains that employers must build and sustain relationships of trust, responsibility and accountability with their staff. Acting in manner that alienates staff or abrogates the responsibility for maintaining and developing strong relationship is bad for business at any time.
Now, more than ever, people have direct access to the sort of information they need to perform their job. Supervision is not about “how to” these days, it’s more about motivation. Understanding and adapting to an individual’s needs is what motivates people and will ultimately create or sustain competitive advantage.
Think for moment about the “knowledge industry”. In what is truly global market, intellectual property is king. Recruiting, developing, supporting and retaining knowledge providers is priority for any organisation.
Knowledge workers have skills and expertise that are in high demand. They are very mobile, and are usually spoilt for choice in job opportunities. These people have the ultimate power in an employment relationship — choice.
There is lot more to retaining these people than just money. The appeal needs to be to the heart as well as the wallet — motivation through lifestyle, loyalty, respect and dignity. Any changes to employment law will be largely irrelevant to these people.
So what lessons are there for those of us in industries not working in cyberspace and eking out an existence on solid ground?
That truth of the matter is that any successful workplace relationship is founded on trust, respect and dignity. When these are missing, they will be replaced by other behaviours. The Employment Contacts Act created an environment in which those with the strength were able to dominate.
Those who used their strength to negotiate one-way settlements have to deal with the consequences of employees with lower sense of loyalty and job satisfaction. They should not be surprised if they face hostile audience of employees backed by unions who see it as “pay back time”.
Organisations that have developed relationship of trust, loyalty and shared responsibility with their employees will see the benefits of that investment and have little to fear from new legislation. Employment relations is completely different beast today than it was 20 years ago. The dynamics of how people interact at work are no longer set out in regulation.
Just like our personal lives, the state sets the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, but it can’t legislate to prevent divorce or stop families becoming dysfunctional.
Workplace relationships are no different. If you don’t nurture and grow the partnership recognising the separate roles of the parties and appreciating the differences, it won’t work. The law is largely irrelevant.
Driving is good analogy where the fundamentals hold true irrespective of legislation. When travelling, driving on the right hand side requires some adjustment for Kiwi drivers, but concentrating on the basics will get you where you want to go without the carnage.
Here’s to safe driving in 2000.
Conrad Siers is consultant with human resources consultancy, Greene Hanson.

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