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From Jack Welch to Paul Polman — what a change in just 15 years!

Trials of a 4-day working week have been a success, according to recent reports in The Guardian. 18 of the 61 participating companies have already made this pattern permanent.

“At Ravelin Robotics, staff have been enjoying a three-day weekend,” said David Alatore, its chief technology officer. “We wanted to instil a culture in the company of putting wellbeing first, making sure that everyone is rested and has a good work balance.”

Contrast these priorities with those displayed at US company General Electric (GE) 25 years ago. One of the candidates shortlisted to succeed the CEO Jack Welch was Bob Nardelli, who was running GE’s power systems businesses:

“Nardelli used to have staff meetings at 07.00 a.m. on Saturday mornings. ‘That kills Friday night’ remembered one long-time GE executive. Work on Saturday under Nardelli would continue to noon or 1.00 pm.”

~ William Cohan in 'Power Failure - The Rise and Fall of General Electric, Allen Lane, 2002, p 299)

No mention of employee well-being there.

Jack Welch, GE CEO between 1980 and 2001, fired 40,000 employees in his first 9 months and 60,000 in his first 2 years.

“The real fear was in the GE factories and offices when Jack would show up. Local managers would panic,” reported William Cohan in Power Failure — The Rise and Fall of General Electric (ibid. p 161), citing a report by journalist Christopher Byron. “All fat people were told to stay out of sight. A plant manager in Cincinnati kept a list of deceased former employees who had worked in the factory in case Jack showed up and asked to see progress in job reductions.”

This didn’t harm the reputation of GE. When Welch retired in 2001, Fortune magazine had just named it the USA’s most admired company for the fifth time in a row.

Seventeen years later, Paul Polman retired as CEO of Unilever after the company had been voted Britain’s most admired company under his leadership.

Building on the debate about changed employee attitudes in “The Great Resignation”, Polman has recently published research to suggest a new phenomenon of “Conscious Quitting”:

“Employees are worried about the future and want to work for companies who are doing something about it . . .

Nearly half of employees say they would consider resigning from their job if the values of the company did not align with their own values (45% UK, 51% US). In fact, a third say they already have resigned from a position for this reason. (35% in both the UK and US). This number rises significantly among Gen Z & Millennials employees (48% UK, 44% US). Nearly half of Gen Z and Millennials would consider taking a pay cut in order to work for a company that shares their values (48% UK, 44% US).”

Have attitudes and behaviours and the balance of power really changed that much? I find it hard to believe, except perhaps where people are already so financially secure that they can afford a long period of unemployment.

It is relatively easy to envisage resignation in answer to a hypothetical question. Yet:

“Half of UK Gen Z employees and two out of five US Gen Z employees report having previously resigned from a job because of this (49% UK, 40% US).”

This prompts another question. What matters more to people? The company’s purpose and external impact, or its values and culture and internal impact?

Polman suggests that they are linked.

“Analyses tend to look at employees as just that: workers, in the narrow sense. Not as human beings, many of whom crave meaning and fulfilment on top of money and flexibility. Human beings who are living through an unprecedented moment in human history; a time of ‘perma-crisis’, where pandemics, war, global warming, economic turmoil and social division in varying degrees threaten people’s health, happiness and safety, and the health, happiness and safety of those we love.”

Perhaps this is the real change we are witnessing in the developed world. Up to the year 2000, approximately, we viewed “employees” as means to a corporate end. Brutal cultures and mass firings seem to have been accepted if the results were good.

Today we have begun to recognise that the employee is a whole human being. It seems more intelligent to seek harmony between the values of employees (and, progressively other stakeholders) and those of the company.

The recruits have a different attitude, too.

I started my career in the mid-1970s working for GEC, the UK’s General Electric Company. My assumption was simple: find the right (large) employer, and rely on that employer to offer me challenge and opportunity. I wanted to make a difference in the world but I expected to achieve that through volunteering or political activism outside the workplace.

I was implicitly accepting a child–adult relationship with my employer.

That has now changed. In the age of the algorithm, there will always be the giant employers which treat their people as means and not ends — and in due course replace them with robots. Meanwhile, the better-qualified will increasingly be choosy about organisations that they might work for. Some will prefer entrepreneurship and self-employment.

Organisations wanting to attract able people know they must appeal to their values. Soon, more will start to draw another twenty-first-century conclusion: if you really want engaged and committed people, give them a share in the profits or the ownership of the business. This, ultimately, is the sign that you have stopped treating employees as means and now see them as ends.


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