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Employee Values Are Changing Course

March 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Values, Ethics, Featured Article
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You’re offered a great promotion, but you would have to relocate to a distant city. Your family says the decision is yours, but you know they don’t want to go. What do you do?

You’ve got a golf game scheduled for Sunday afternoon, and you’ve worked all weekend to write a proposal to be presented Monday morning. The proposal is more or less finished, but a few more hours of work would make it polished and persuasive. Do you cancel the game?

You like your job and feel that you’re making a significant contribution to your organization, but you’ve been offered an early-retirement package. You don’t want to retire, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be offered such attractive terms again. What do you decide?

These are tough decisions, because they force you to choose between two things you value. How each of you would decide depends on which value has the higher priority—family happiness or advancement, personal balance or competitiveness, and power or security. Ethical dilemmas can pose the same problem such as the loyalty-to-employer vs. loyalty-to-family issue described in the January 1998 "Ethical Stand."

Just as they do for you, employees’ values operate quietly in the background of all the decisions they make, coming to the foreground when choices involve conflicting values. Many of the disquieting and disruptive trends in the workplace today are the result of conflicts between the new social values of employees and the more traditional values held by employers.

Today’s workforce has a new set of social values.
That social values do change is obvious everywhere. The manager who would unquestioningly move for a promotion five or 10 years ago, today is just as likely to put family happiness and stability ahead of career advancement. The baby boomer who never gave any thought to retirement may conclude that financial security beats taking any chances.

As employees increasingly make choices about work that fly in the face of the expectations and needs of employers, it’s helpful to look at the broad changes in social values that are behind those decisions. DYG Inc., a Danbury, Connecticut-based social and marketing research company whose chairman is Daniel Yankelovich, has been tracking Americans’ hopes, dreams, fears, and ideas of right and wrong for years. The firm’s ongoing research documents a social upheaval that has impact on all aspects of life and profound implications for the world of work.

At conferences sponsored by employee-development firm Blessing/White, DYG’s President Madelyn Hochstein identifies five social trends which are emerging today and influencing decisions about work/life:

1. Anti-institutional bias. The federal government has been the major focus of skepticism and distrust, but the sense that established structures are out of control extends to business. A decade of downsizing has taken a heavy toll. Highly publicized executive compensation packages have stirred up widespread outrage. Large corporations are no longer regarded as benevolent.

2. Self-reliance. Feeling betrayed or abandoned by the corporations they once looked to for security, guidance and the means to the good life, Americans increasingly value and depend on their personal resources. Entrepreneurs are the new heroes, and having one’s own business is the new status symbol.

3. Less willingness to take risks. Baby boomers who came of age in the go-go ’60s have spent most of their working lives with the expectation that the good times would go on forever. The recent years of no growth, cost cutting and downsizing have caused many of them to trim their sails and begin behaving in self-protective ways. The most risk-averse group of all is Generation X. The majority of this group believes it’s safer to work for oneself than to join a company.

4. Meritocracy. One way that Americans deal with the widening gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is to view the world in terms of winners and losers. In contrast to the decades when most Americans saw themselves as members of the huge middle class, they now believe there isn’t enough for everybody and the rewards will go to "the best." The mood is intolerant and punitive toward those who aren’t making it.

5. Family and child-centeredness. The divorce rate has dropped, people are marrying earlier, adultery is once again condemned and the baby boom of the ’90s is outstripping the one that began in 1946. Americans believe the institution of the family has been in crisis long enough, and they lay some of the blame on the business environment. Gen-X parents don’t want their kids to grow up as latchkey children. The ideal, once again, is to have one parent at home.

What these trends point to, Hochstein says, is a new moral focus. For decades, people believed that the business of America was business. The most important indicator of happiness and security was the economic indicator. Within this values framework, it made sense to work hard, to be loyal to your company, to relocate your family to keep your foothold on the corporate ladder, to conform and to trust that hard work and loyalty would pay off in financial growth and lifelong security. Then as manufacturing jobs moved abroad, as global competition forced cost-cutting measures, as plants closed and managerial positions were eliminated, people realized that employers were no longer keeping their end of the bargain.

The DYG research shows that Americans have learned to live with a more sober economic outlook. Workers have passed through a pragmatic response to economic limits —taking a second job, shopping at outlet stores, remodeling the house instead of buying a larger one—and adopted a moral focus. They’ve moved from an emphasis on what works to a concern with what’s right.

Traditional organizations are lagging far behind.
Many companies haven’t received the message that overworkers and detached clockwatchers alike are there just for the paycheck. The disconnect between corporations and employees shows up in recruiting and retention challenges, performance problems, negative attitudes toward change initiatives and in unethical actions such as sabotage, theft and vandalism.

As Hochstein points out, because values precede behavior, it’s safe to predict the difficulties will increase. Already, the largest private employer in America is a provider of temporary staffing. Temporary work, part-time work and contract work are all on the rise. Sideline businesses, usually home-based, are cropping up everywhere. And ethical challenges are on the rise, as described in detail in the October 1997 Workforce cover story, "50 Percent of Your Employees Are Lying, Cheating & Stealing."

Reconciling corporate and employee values will help to cement the ethical environment you’re working to build

Companies need to take employees’ values seriously.
The choices people are making point to a desire for more meaning in work and in life. To attract the best employees and retain their creativity, productivity, loyalty and ethical behavior, your organizations will have to make room for their personal values. Enlightened companies, realizing that energized, committed employees give them their only competitive edge, are taking values seriously.

Reconciling corporate and employee values will help to cement the ethical environment you’re working to build and maintain. As Frank Navran, writer of the September 1997 installment of "Ethical Stand" explains: A corporate values statement is one of the key components of a best-practices ethics program.

People at all levels want to know what the organization stands for, and whether it’s something they can feel a part of. Identifying and articulating the fundamental guiding principles of the business is the first step to winning back the commitment of employees who have come to believe that what matters to the company isn’t what matters to them. Knowing that their company stands for values they themselves hold can help employees decide to devote their loyalty and best effort.

It’s equally critical to help individual employees clarify their own values. When people understand their own priorities, they become more decisive, confident and responsible. And unless they’re clear about their personal values, they’ll have no way of judging whether the corporate values agree with their own.

The message organizations have been sending for too long is that they don’t value their employees. There’s no better way to prove that they do than to acknowledge and respond to the values of those employees.

Workforce, March 1998, Vol. 77, No. 3, pp. 83-84.

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