4 December 2000
Employee empowerment is a phrase that gets around. Whether it is a management text, a personnel magazine or an interview with a successful young e-business entrepreneur, everywhere you look someone is proclaiming their faith in the ideology of empowerment. And yet does anyone really know what it means? And for the few who do, are they really ready to embrace it? The fact is that we live in an age where human resource managers are desperate to prove their strategic worth to organisations. The whole profession is keen to raise its profile and win a seat at the right hand of the chief executive officer (CEO) or managing partner. To achieve this, personnel policies have remained focused on costs and controls, not on the feel-good flimflam of touchy-feely HR policies like empowerment. The result is a good old-fashioned compromise, where half-hearted attempts at creating an empowered or flat organisation achieve nothing of the sort.
One of the lamest examples of this type of empowering policy is the dress-down concept. There is little question that the way people dress at work sets the tone of an organisation. People act and feel differently according to how they are dressed. But does it really suggest anything other than corporate paranoia to tell people that they can wear what they like one day a week and then back it up with a set of rules and regulations that makes the cricket rule book look easy to understand? The truth is that most employers simply do not trust their staff to act reasonably. And without this fundamental trust, what hope is there of moving away from the old command-and-control approach to people management? There is plenty of evidence to show that staff appreciate being treated like rational human beings. One recent survey by the Industrial Society found that where it is done properly, a dress-down policy can be a real turn-on for staff, but done badly all it does is emphasise just how much control the boss has over our lives. If you want staff to act like adults, it makes sense to treat them that way.
One of the problems is that employers are struggling to come to terms with the fundamental shift in the pecking order. As the labour market shrinks, law firms are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and then keep hold of good staff. Loyalty, we are told time and again, is dead. In the same way that marketing companies had to eventually wake up to the fact that the consumer is king, so law firms are having to wake up to an increasingly demanding workforce. And this is changing the nature of the contract between employer and employee.
And yet, the vast majority of law firms have not faced up to these realities. They continue to offer a package structured around being an old-fashioned, paternalistic, caring employer; someone to look out for the long-term interests of the staff, most of whom (bless them) do not know what is good for them. Even where a more dynamic approach is taken, and greater choice and flexibility are introduced to reward systems, there is often a reluctance to let employees have the final say on how they are rewarded. Flexible benefits schemes are often heralded as marking a radical departure from a paternalistic approach, giving employees the sort of say over how their packages pan out that empowerment demands. But very few flexible benefit schemes are prepared to go all the way and leave the whole choice up to staff. Once again it seems they just cannot be trusted. Most notorious is the all too common mistake of not including the pension in the flexible benefits scheme.
Those few firms with the wit and invention to be truly empowering in their approach to employee relations will be rewarded. Not only will they find it easier to win the talent war, but once on board, employees will work harder and be more productive. And that is the only way of guaranteeing HR its much-coveted place at the top table.