How the Employer-Employee Relationship Has Permanently Changed

Both Parties Must React Quickly to Seismic Shifts in the Workplace

By Published on .

Melanie Haniph
Melanie Haniph
Recently at an industry conference I overheard a conversation between two co-workers who were sharing their frustration about how they were being treated by their managers. One of them said she hated her job so much, she had basically given up trying to make it work. She ended the conversation by saying to the other, "Let them fire me. I don't even care what happens anymore. I'll just go work somewhere else and be totally unhappy in that job, too."

It wasn't the first time I'd heard that kind of conversation, but it made me think about how much more prevalent unhappy and disgruntled employees are in today's workplace. Whether because of a bad boss, a longing for more innovative and challenging work, or management decisions that have taken the fun out of their jobs, many employees today, no matter the industry or job function, have declared, publicly and in private, that all bets are off. The employer-employee relationship has changed for good. Why?

1. The psychological contract has been broken. Employees today have become demoralized by slowly rising salaries or, in some places, salary cuts. They've grown tired of being flexible and working long hours, only to get disappointed when that flexibility isn't reciprocated by their companies in the way they want. Employees can't be faulted for having certain expectations, and employers can't be faulted for making business decisions that are required for them to stay afloat in today's economy. Nonetheless, in many cases, trust has eroded. Employees expect more and so do companies.

2. There's increased competition. Increased workplace competition is coming from many directions and will continue to change employee and employer perceptions about performance expectations, pay, working hours and everything in between. Not only is the work force getting older, as baby boomers stay employed longer, but the employees at the other end of the age spectrum, which make up a population about as large, the millennials, have different expectations and career motivations altogether.

Everyone wants more. More and more employees today expect greater say in how work is assigned and assessed and rewarded, and employers similarly want more from employees in the form of mobility, working hours and pay, because it will allow companies to remain nimble and productive during economic upturns and downturns.

This means that both employees and employers need to be flexible. To attract a healthy balance of the strongest millennials, baby boomers and generations in between, employers must consider what they will change or highlight about their work culture in order to attract the best talent. And continuously evolving markets and the exchange of certain types of jobs for others make it imperative that employees expand their skill sets and areas of focus, so that they can compete for jobs or new projects with greater success. At the most innovative companies of the future, only two- and three-trick ponies need apply.

3. Employees and employers aren't engaged. Simply put, employee engagement is the feeling we all get on Sunday night when we think about going back to work on Monday. Are we excited about the opportunity to do what we enjoy, and anticipating another new week to add value in our jobs? Are we indifferent and willing just to go through the motions to get our paychecks? Or are we trying to decide what sort of non-fatal contagious disease we are wishing to get, because we'd do almost anything not to have to go through another week in a job we hate? The answer depends on the degree to which we feel engaged at work.

Companies and employees alike need to get engaged. That means that instead of the traditional lopsided reliance on the chief financial officer or chief legal counsel to be the leading voice for company strategy and direction relative to the bottom line, the chief marketing officer and the chief talent officer and others need to involve themselves earlier in the most critical decisions companies make about their futures. Employees can get engaged at work when they believe their counsel and opinion and experience has value to top company decision makers, and employers need to take the risk of operating under a new-business model that values new and different voices at the decision-making table.

Employers should also value leadership skills in the same way they've valued technical competence and years of experience a person has in a specific area. Companies that continue to accept poor leadership in favor of strong revenue-generation capability, instead of demanding and developing both, may risk missing an opportunity to develop and engage their most creative and imaginative employees. Likewise, employees need to realize that going the career path of least resistance may someday simply not be enough. Today, everyone must strive for greater personal leadership at work, by being unafraid to push unproven ideas to the division head or CEO, by challenging conventional or even tried-and-true methods, and by demonstrating the ability to lead and motivate others to do the same.

It's imperative that employers understand the importance of motivating and engaging employees, not just with money and perks but with strong leadership and managers who are held to a higher standard. Employees want to lead and be led with good ideas and creative and winning strategies, and companies should develop their people to be able to lead in the context of a much broader and more flexible workplace. Otherwise, both employees and companies will fail to achieve full potential. And all bets are off.

Melanie Haniph is the global head of human resources for a leading environmental-products brokerage firm in New York. She has held roles in the United States and Europe across the full spectrum of HR, as well as facilities and corporate risk management.
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