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Workers 'aren't scared anymore'

Book review: When 'Values Shift' at work

bookcover


"Values Shift: The New Work Ethic and What It Means for Business"
John B. Izzo and Pam Withers
Fairwinds Press, 236 pages, April

(CNN) -- "Worker motivation now ranks evenly with customer service as the key to holding market edge." So write John B. Izzo and Pam Withers in "Values Shift" -- their book on what they describe as a near-crisis in issues of worker retention.

And their book arrives in stores and on desks -- and maybe gets quickly tucked away into briefcases for furtive reading on the train ride home from the office -- just as the New York-based Families and Work Institute releases its new study results. The data indicate that many Americans may feel overworked and stressed by their jobs -- so much so that their health is endangered, their relationships are neglected and their job performances are compromised.

John Izzo and Pam Withers might be forgiven for saying, "I told you so."

"Companies need good people more than ever," they write in "Values Shift" -- "and yet loyalty as we know it is dead or hardly breathing. ... Unfortunately, many of today's employers don't 'get it.' They don't believe their buyer's market has ended, or they believe the current situation is very temporary and restricted to a few elite industries."

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Izzo and Withers are based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and are experienced in analysis of North American career issues. He's a consultant who has worked with Xerox, Coca-Cola, IBM, AT&T and others. She's a journalist whose work has been read in the New York Times, Working Woman, McCalls and Your Money.

And their book is among the most compelling of a recent shelfful of such cautionary publications about how corporate management is losing touch with the real needs and intents of employees.

Izzo and Withers cite several studies for basic numbers that add up to what they see as a coming crisis. The points on which they base their commentary include:

•   Two-thirds of workers surveyed in the United States say they're actively thinking about leaving their current company in the next three years. Two-thirds of those asked also say they're fully confident they have what it takes to succeed in the new economy.

•   In the last five years, 28 percent of workers have voluntarily made changes in their lives that resulted in making less money. For the most part, according to the authors, they did this in pursuit of better-balanced lives.

•   And the number of managers working 49 hours or more per week has gone up 37 percent since 1985.

Among the things such information tells us, write the authors, is that "The era of analyzing economic changes in terms of how workers must adapt to survive is over. Instead, this book explores how companies must adapt to keep workers, how economic and societal shifts have literally changed the way workers see work."

No fear

A Royal Bank of Canada study made last year is cited by the authors as providing an intriguing emotional bit of color to the discussion of today's employee-employer relationship. The study indicated, Izzo and Withers write, that workers "aren't scared anymore.

"Whereas the workers of the early 1900s were painted as cowering victims of downshifting, worried about whether they could make a living away from the corporate trough, the Royal Bank study found that two-thirds of Canadians today feel strongly that they have the skills necessary to compete in the new century. That's evolution and adaptation within a very tight time frame. It's also a reflection of new worker values."

author
John B. Izzo, Ph.D.  

Izzo and Withers offer some statistical clues to what may be emboldening workers today -- and they find those clues in the great era of downsizing in the United States.

For example, 87 percent of North American organizations and 86 percent of companies abroad, they write, downsized between 1986 and 1993. "Between 1987 and 1993 ... large companies like IBM, Sears Roebuck and GE shed a quarter or more of their work forces. One-third of households contained someone who lost a job and nearly 75 percent of all households experienced a close encounter with layoffs between 1980 and the late 1990s."

There's a caveat here: "To be fair," write Izzo and Withers, "most executives were good people striving to do a painful task demanded of them from many different fronts."

But to get at the disintegration of morale that took place, you only have to consider such obnoxious euphemisms as "outplacement" -- as if "downsizing" weren't bad enough. And the authors of "Values Shift" quote two other book writers -- Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy of "Revitalizing the Workplace After Downsizing, Mergers and Reengineering."

"At St. Louis brokerage firm Edward Jones, new brokers are immersed in 17 hours of classes at a cost of $50,000 to $70,000 per head. 'We consider training an investment rather than an expense,' explains the principal."
— John B. Izzo, Pam Withers, "Values Shift"

"Somehow those tapped for outplacement," wrote Deal and Kennedy, "were older. Too many of the bosses' favorites found jobs in the redesigned organization. ... The end result: Trust was the first victim of the downsizing."

Trust didn't evaporate alone: Fear quickly followed. And what was left -- what is left, in Izzo and Withers' estimation -- is a sometimes sullen, often suspicious and occasionally snarling work force that has yet to be fully appreciated or understood by many employers.

Not all bad news

But the "Values Shift" authors don't leave their readers without guidance. The first step, they write, in an effort to come to terms with what employees need today from employers, is "an honest assessment. ... When was the last time your organization held frank conversations with colleagues as to why they stay and what would make them leave? What key values or needs are not being met at this time?"

And then they come up with a less predictable comment: "Imitation," they write, is the "worst form of strategy." What they're trying to head off is thinking that suggests, "If informal barbecues create community, let's have a few. If giving work teams power spells partnership, count us in."

author
Pam Withers  

At many points in the book, Izzo and Withers have offered some fairly good-sounding barbecues thrown by various companies.

•   "At Kinko's Inc. in Ventura, California, turnover stood at 78 percent. The company brought it down to 50 percent through a number of measures, including issuing $300 worth of stock to all employees who had been there a year or more. They also offered a 100-percent-matched 401(k) plan that put one-quarter of that match into company stock. They called these measures 'trying to give co-workers a piece of the rock.'"

•   "At credit card company Total Systems Services, every employee is made to feel an instant part of an extended family. To symbolize this, when the company built a new campus in Georgia, it designed a river walk of bricks, each inscribed with an employee's name."

•   "In return for completing a health assessment and attending a group counseling session on the results, employees at Fannie Mae receive a 'Healthy Living Day' off."

•   "Six weeks of vacation time is standard at the German software firm SAP AG, and employees -- who are allowed to accumulate time off -- sometimes take months off after completing a project."

•   "At St. Louis brokerage firm Edward Jones, new brokers are immersed in 17 hours of classes at a cost of $50,000 to $70,000 per head. 'We consider training an investment rather than an expense,' explains the principal."

•   "In an effort to stem a tide of departing women, Deloitte & Touche of Wilton, Connecticut, launched a cultural revolution called Women's Initiative, which dramatically changed the environment to one more sensitive to the need for balancing work and home."

"Companies need good people more than ever, and yet loyalty as we know it is dead or hardly breathing. ... Unfortunately, many of today's employers don't 'get it.' They don't believe their buyer's market has ended, or they believe the current situation is very temporary and restricted to a few elite industries."
— John B. Izzo, Pam Withers, "Value Shift"

But even while cautioning you against trying to emulate some of these other companies' efforts, and near what they term with characteristic wry fun "a final benediction," Izzo and Withers slip in one more nugget of advice: "The best way to get started is to get started." That's the Nike message. Just do it, they admonish all comers: "Doing something is more important than waiting for perfection."

Unfortunately, their key suggestion at this point for "doing something" seems to be buying and handing out copies of their book to all who need it, at least as a starter. Granted, many need to read "Values Shift." But the authors' dive into self-marketing is unseemly and jarring. It slathers their good work with a dollop of smarmy self-service that we -- and they -- could have done without.

But that gaffe is one of the very few that mar what's otherwise a powerful paperback's punch in the paunch of any self-satisfied corporate administration that thinks its people are somehow happy to be treated on a par with such necessary niceties as desk furniture and break-room amenities.

You don't come away from "Values Shift" without a clear direction to consider, a context to debate with co-workers and a test to apply about where you are in your own career -- as an employee or employer.

"Change has become the watchword of the 21st century," Izzo and Withers write. "We are living in a world that is radically reshaping human experience. From biotechnology to information technology, from the way we work and the way we shop to the way we connect with one another, no traditions from the past can be taken for granted any longer. Families, the economy, society and technology all have undergone radical change -- unquestionably the most profound upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. The values of today's workers are changing along with that upheaval."

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