Why Employees Are So Angry

September 1, 1998
It's a lot like a mathematics equation gone horribly wrong. Hmm -- let's see: lowest unemployment in decades, companies scrambling to woo new workers, more money than ever spent on workplace programs. These factors should all add up to a satisfied workforce. Not so. Instead, companies nationwide are reporting quite the opposite.

Ronald M. Katz, assistant vice president of corporate employee relations at Chase Manhattan Bank, is continually surprised by the increase in his employees' anger. He says that 10 years ago, a violation of the bank's conduct code was absolutely scandalous. In 1988, for instance, Katz can think of one, or maybe two conduct violations for the year. In 1996, there were at least 15 terminations linked to insubordination, screaming at managers in front of customers, and even a few fistfights.

Now, this isn't a rough-and-tumble industry we're talking about. This is banking. And it's not just any bank, but the well-respected Chase Manhattan Bank -- a perennial favorite for lists like Working Mothers' list of "Best Companies for Working Mothers," and an organization lauded for employee programs from flexible work arrangements to diversity initiatives. "It goes with the [increased] litigiousness of employees," Katz says. "They're more willing to lash out, or at least threaten it."

Meanwhile, across the country in I'm-OK-You're-OK San Francisco of all places, Michael Lotito starts his morning ritual. As he gets ready to shave, the 22-year partner at employment-law firm Jackson Lewis stares at his reflection in the mirror and reminds himself that most employees are really decent people. "There's been a general breakdown in relations between employees and employers," he says. "It's a crime to talk about employees in the context of risk management, but we do."

And Bill DeFoore, who literally wrote the book on anger, notes the counterintuitive conclusion that has managers collectively scratching their heads: "Work conditions in some ways are better than ever, but people's tolerance for unmet needs is lower, and frustration and anger and the willingness to express it is on the rise," says the author of Anger: Deal with It, Heal It, Stop It from Killing You and The New Bottom Line: Bringing Heart and Soul to Business.

The general disenchantment of the workforce surfaces everywhere. Workplace grumbling rises. Employment lawsuits multiply. And employees continue their great migration to -- well, anywhere but where they are now.

A recent Workforce/E.span survey in the June 1998 issue tapped into this anger. Eighty-four percent of HR professionals said their firms were experiencing increased hostility.

But why is this happening? The same survey offered several explanations. Sixty-four percent of HR managers say their companies haven't been as employee-friendly as they've promised in areas ranging from work/life to career development. Conversely, 67 percent said they also believed employees have unrealistic expectations in what their companies can -- and should -- provide in terms of HR services like benefits, compensation and perks. DeFoore sums it up when he says, "There's a gap between [employees'] reality and a better picture out there in the employment world."

In other words, there are mountains of unmet expectations to be reckoned with. Society, business, HR and employees themselves have all contributed to building an era of great expectations. Now that those expectations aren't becoming a reality, employees are getting quite irritated. They got their hopes up too high, and there are three primary reasons that explain this phenomenon:

  • Corporate America is infatuated with spin. Top executives still fear giving employees straight talk. Instead of giving the bad news with the good news, companies try to make everything seem a little too shiny and bright. Result: Employees who believe the spin get angry when reality sets in.

  • Decreased loyalty and promises of big paydays have made companies prime targets of suits. Companies, led by counsel, protect against serial suers by churning out legal program after legal program. Result: Employees who are lulled into a false sense of security become surprised and angered when faced with harassment or criticism. Some sue; some stew.

  • Attention has been misplaced on flimsy HR efforts. In-creased media focus and corporate buzz has heightened the profile of employee services. In response, HR has over-programmed the workplace. Result: Employees become jaded by "programs of the month," and get angry when they feel these goodies overshadow real effort to make their companies better places for them to work.

Yes, HR has had a role in perpetuating all these problems -- but HR can also play a big role in fixing them. Here's how to align employees' expectations with the realities of your company -- and boost your credibility in the process.

Don't spin.
Some companies are a bit like Oscar Wilde's character, Dorian Gray. On the surface, they look like simply lovely places to work -- proactive, synergistic, "outside the box." But somewhere inside, underneath the curtain, there's that darn portrait, growing more ugly, decrepit and deceitful. HR shouldn't help hold down that curtain.

While the spin cycle has always been a part of doing business, it became an even larger problem in the early '90s, when Corporate America began trimming, cutting, then butchering its payrolls.

Layoffs became rightsizings ("It's not that you've been let go; you've been rightsized. Now don't you feel better?"). Pay increases were swapped for career development ("You may not be here forever," -- read: "We'll probably fire you tomorrow, but we can give you the skills to get you to that next place," -- read: "You'll be home, eating cheese puffs, watching foreign-language soap operas in your bathrobe"). And slippery little packages started arriving, made up to look like employee services ("We'll do your laundry, extend daycare hours, and give you laptops for home"). They too often just enabled longer workdays.

Certainly, HR is not to blame for the wanton cannibalization of the workforce, and career development and employee services are indeed hallmarks of excellent organizations. But when these programs are simply tokens to keep employees at bay, as they are at so many companies, employees lose faith in their companies. Now that many see exactly how little has improved after all the promises and posturing, they're justifiably miffed.

"HR has been stuck promoting a panacea type thing -- doing pep rallies -- which is irritating to employees," says DeFoore. "They're asking for integrity ... [Instead,] the conversation from management to HR is 'Make this look good to the people. We're going to do it; you sell it.'"

For HR professionals to be effective, they must know what employees are thinking. This insight requires that employees view HR as a center of straight talk, straight answers and integ- rity. And that, of course, means that an image of HR as part of the PR machine is devastating to the profession.

How can this situation be resolved? The answers range from full-scale cultural change (for which you'd have to drop some dough) to surprisingly simple steps you personally can take.

Dave Raco, training manager for TravelCenters of America, has opted for the cultural-change approach. It's nothing less than an attempt to make the company, which bundles service stations, restaurants and hotels for the road-weary, a paragon of trustworthiness.

The Westlake, Ohio, firm has tripled in size in just the past year alone, and realized that to continue its aggressive growth, trust would be a requisite. And who better to help, managers thought, than Franklin Covey Co., the Provo, Utah-based organization that brought you Franklin planners and "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"?

Last year, Franklin rolled out a new program called Building Trust, created in response to what project manager Richard Maddox calls "a mega-problem among HR managers concerning corporate cultures." The problem, identified by research, was a lack of honesty in companies, which directly contributed to current, dismal employee-retention rates.

Each workshop starts with a survey to see where the company's current trust levels are. Employees answer questions such as "How are you/your team/the organization at: Honoring commitments? Behaving and communicating consistently? Sharing information, both positive and negative, with those who need it?"

During the day-long workshop, employees talk about spe-cific instances of trust breakdown in their areas. For example, "Jane in HR said she'd look into a daycare program, and then when I asked her about it, she mumbled something about how lucky we are to have casual days and scuttled off."

The employees then pair off to create action plans that fix their specific trust issues, such as an oath stating, "I, Jane, will write down each employee question or request, and follow up weekly with a memo on my progress, or lack thereof. Said memos will be (gulp) spin-free." The partners meet in a month to see how they're doing, and a post-course profile measures how the company is coming along.

The workshops can help HR on several levels. First, they offer a support base in which HR people can look managers in the eye and say, "If we're not going to have a daycare, we need to explain to employees exactly why there won't be one -- it's one of my workshop commitments."

Second, Raco says, is when trustworthiness spreads throughout the organization, the culture actually does change, taking the pressure off HR to wax happy. Raco says he has seen improvements in trust across the board after each iteration. "Trust spirals upward," Raco says. "It's a very powerful thing. When I see you as trustworthy, you start to become more trustworthy." The cost of the transformation is in the $200-per-person range for Franklin Covey facilitation. If a company uses its own training provisions, the cost drops markedly.

For those with neither the time nor the company cash, there's the personal approach. Mary Sickel, who used to be an HR manager and is now a business coach for HR managers, says there can be no spin, no equivocations and definitely no lies. "HR needs integrity," says the Lakeville, Minnesota-based consultant. "Tell the truth, speak up, and be honest, because when you're not, they see through it."

Let employees vent, she advises. Even if they're angry, they're giving you important information. Don't claim to have answers or solutions, but get answers for them. And if it's a big scary issue like downsizing, get the right answers. Is top man-agement being slippery? Videotape managers responding to employees' tough questions. Then, at least when they change their minds, you don't get labeled a counterintelligence agent.

Sheila Smith, who's managing a workforce's transition to computerization, knows how tempting it is to put a smiley face on challenges. After several downsizings at the City of Norfolk, Virginia, the workforce is a little skittish. So when the city's executives visited each site of the water utilities department to explain the technological changes, she tagged along to make sure the message remained the same, and to log employee questions. "Too many official communications are spiels; you might as well be at a Tom Peters' seminar. Employees prefer honesty," she says.

Therefore, she has designated herself the willing ear for all employees. They come to her with complaints, questions, problems, ideas and suggestions. What's the key to her relationship with workers? "The absolute necessity of listening to employees without feeling you have to answer all the time," she says. "You need to say 'I appreciate your perspective, thanks for sharing your insight,' rather than feeling you have to legitimize or defend a company policy. It's hard not to be defensive -- not to have an answer -- but the dialogue is more important."

Jackie Brinton, an HR professional at W.L. Gore & Asso-ciates -- the maker of Gore-Tex -- in Newark, Delaware, takes it a step further by addressing organizational problems during employee orientation. For instance, the company, famed for its lack of titles and hierarchy, depends on a "sponsor" system in which old-timers help newcomers navigate the ambiguity of the group's structure. The system has taken a beating in the past year because Gore is adding people so quickly, there aren't enough trained sponsors to go around. HR addresses this issue by talking about strategies that employees can use to get the attention they need. "I didn't want it to be that HR happy talk," says Brinton. "We want to give people an idea of the ideal of Gore, but that there are the realities, and here's what they can do about it."

Most HR professionals genuinely want to make employees happy. In a job function so often shackled by upper management constrained by budgets, cheap programs and policies are easy answers.

The approach builds HR's credibility, while also ensuring HR doesn't build false expectations -- which is exactly what the function needs to do.

Present legal issues realistically.
It's scary out there. There are many ex-employees waiting to damage companies they rightly or wrongly believe have done them wrong. There are tremendous payday possibilities: Recent jury verdicts have awarded millions to individual plaintiffs for harassment, discrimination and defamation. Plus, there is a decrease in loyalty that employees feel toward their employers -- particularly after the past wave of downsizing.

Wisely, HR professionals have jumped in to protect their companies with full-body legal armor. Unfortunately, this has created another unrealistic set of expectations. In an era where there's a program or workshop for every employment issue, too many employees have begun to expect a problem-free workplace. They're shocked and upset when that isn't the case.

But the good news is there's a way HR can both protect the company and place employees squarely in the real world. First, be very careful about how you promote your training program, especially in the sexual-harassment and discrimination arenas. For instance, make sure employees understand that although the diversity-awareness training is intended to help forge a discrimination-free environment, it's not a cure. Despite your best efforts, problems may arise.

Being practical doesn't mean going all nuts-and-bolts, and overdoing the compliance angle could be off-putting, says Lotito, the employment-law attorney. "Too many employers are focusing too much on the legal side and not enough on the human side," he says. "Let's not forget that we still are dealing with human beings."

Lotito suggests this type of approach: Suppose sexual harassment keeps you from doing your best work. You may develop a program that helps address the issue, and helps people understand why it's wrong -- but it's up to you to report problems. You must also do your share in solving these obstacles through a strong internal system.

The approach accomplishes two important things. First, it gives employees a warning that problems may still occur. Secondly, it reminds them of their responsibility -- that they must help too. This lowers the expectation that everything's going to be perfect all the time, which in turn lowers chances of lawsuits from shocked employees who feel the company promised them a trouble-free environment. "Don't ever guarantee there won't be a problem," says Brooks Kubik, who handles employment law for Louisville firm Stites & Harbison, "but guarantee that if there is a problem, employees can go to [HR], and HR will work on it with them."

However, if your workforce needs a stark, black-and-white legal picture, you can strip the HR piece down even further. Call in a third-party counsel to boil compliance down to dos and don'ts. You'll find if employees and managers don't respond to "doing it because it's right," they will respond to "doing it because it's illegal not to."

For example, the HR folks at the Kentucky Housing Corp. in Frankfort knew they needed to get their managers up to speed on everything from performance documentation to workplace violence to the Americans with Disabilities Act. They also knew that, although it was their initiative, HR shouldn't touch the actual training. "We felt if HR [conducted it], instead of thinking of these things as a law, managers would think of them as HR's rules," says Shelly Prochaska, employee development manager.

So they brought in Kubik, who conducts scores of such seminars, and believes managers don't need to know just how to do things legally, but also why. And he doesn't hesitate to sell the 'why' on a personal level. At Prochaska's seminar last December, he spoke about how simple it is under Kentucky law to file individual claims against managers -- and how easily a suit can ruin people's lives. And, oh yes, he adds Kentucky has no cap for emotional-distress damages.

HR played the good guy, as it does in all Kubik's training -- he goes in, reads the riot act, and says that HR is there to help. Suddenly, the necessary legal training has been done, and it isn't tainted as a flavor of the month. "I have a very strong bias that HR managers shouldn't do these types of programs," he says. "If you do, they think it's just another program and tune you out."

Don't be "Catbert."
They're everywhere. Surf the Internet, flip through a magazine, browse through a bookstore -- and there they are: lists of the best places to work for mothers, for fathers, for baby boomers, for Gen Xers, for minorities, for disabled people, for just about anyone. Employees have more information than ever before on what companies are doing for other employees. They want what they believe other employees have -- often imagining unrealistic business meccas with high compensation, hefty perks and fewer work hours -- or at the very least, they want great places to work.

HR wants that too.

Unfortunately, creating a great company isn't easy, it isn't cheap, and it sure as heck isn't something the HR department can do on its own. So HR does what it can, and thus, it slips into "Catbert" mode. You know Catbert -- Scott Adams' evil HR director who spreads little seeds of dysfunction throughout Dil-bert's corporate empire. His weapon of choice? Really pointless programs. Oops.

It's easy to understand why HR is wedded to its programs and policies. Most HR professionals genuinely want to make employees happy. In a job function so often shackled by upper management and constrained by budgets, cheap programs and policies are easy answers. There are a lot of them. And this upsets employees because what they expect -- true assistance in helping them work better and smarter -- isn't what they get -- lots of little programs they don't really want or need.

Even if you can't swing performance bonuses for the big project design team, they know you've been there, talked with them about their issues, and are accessible. You "get it," which is something HR doesn't hear often enough.

"The program of the month is one of the things that has made employees hold HR up to ridicule in the first place," says Pamela Pommerenke, an assistant HR business professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Workers aren't fooled by this ... they realize it's bull, and they laugh at us."

How can HR cut the bull and get down to business? Avoid the temptation to throw programs at problems, says senior vice president Jim Krefft, president of consulting firm Six Sigma Qual-tec in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Pretty soon, you are Catbert. It's kind of like when cops go play ball with the poor kids to improve their image. HR has been in let's-give-'em-stuff mode ... like casual days from May to September -- that's in the baubles and trinkets category. And HR persists, 'If this trinket doesn't work, here's a shiny one over here, let's try this.'"

Brinton believes the very fact that she has no official HR title at Gore gives her a psychological advantage in the war against baubles and trinkets. Rather than signing on to the expectations from an HR title, she signed a "commitment" to make the company work through its people.

And that's what she does every day. On a recent day, she started work with a pre-employment testing project that she had initiated after detecting decreased literacy among applicants. She conducted interviews to fill vacancies in the fabrics division at the request of the department. And she joined a team meeting to discuss hiring and performance issues -- a meeting to which she invited herself, although the team is just as likely to approach her.

How does she manage being taken seriously, much less appreciated, by Gore's employees? "Every time you interact, you gain or lose credibility," she says. "I try to gain it by modeling our values and principles, treating people fairly, following through on my commitments, understanding where the business is going, being open and honest ... It's real basic stuff; it's not magic."

Katz also has a pragmatic approach. He jokes about his peers who "go from polls to focus groups to meetings to newsletters and never have a deliverable. That hurts us." Instead, when he was a generalist, he hit the line at least one day a week, talking with managers about their people issues and possible solutions, making sure he was visible. He even pulled a night shift at least once a month so he'd have face time with the check-processing department. He quotes Woody Allen's line: "Eighty percent of success is just showing up." And the success has earned Katz what he considers his highest recognition: an internal award from a branch manager who said he always saw Katz as a member of his team.

Katz is also diligent about promoting HR's tangible success stories, something he thinks the function has been too modest about. For example, if employees receive a big paycheck from their profit sharing, HR should ensure everyone knows how the compensation team makes it happen.

The best part about Katz's approach is it doesn't cost money. You don't have to play "Mother May I?" with the executive team, and yet the payoffs are big. Even if you can't swing performance bonuses for the project design team, they know you've been there, talked with them about their issues, and are accessible. You "get it," which is something HR doesn't hear often enough.

Katz couldn't do anything to stave off the downsizing the bank went through a few years ago, and couldn't always help employees who had to switch locations or shifts. But he did attend every downsizing announcement, acknowledging the disrupted commutes and daycare arrangements, and the uncertainty employees felt. "I said, 'Talk to me. Talk to me today, talk to me tomorrow, talk to me whenever, but talk to me.'" He still gets phone calls from employees he hasn't worked with in years.

Easing employees' anger is all about aligning their expectations with company realities. By backing off the spin, offering sensible approaches to workplace legalities and refusing to throw programs at problems, HR can ensure employees get what they have coming to them.

Of course, we won't tell you that every employee will love you afterward. It would give you unrealistic expectations.

Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 77, No. 9, pp. 26-33.