Why your Employer of Choice Program Fails, Again

Pretty much every company I have worked for has gone through that phase where someone goes to a seminar or hears some speaker talk about being the employer of choice and being the best you can be or some other inane catch phrase.

Usually the CEO or HR director hears about it and listens to how great and wonderful it is and uses his executive power for the good of everyone and starts the program without any clue of what it really means and how to make this a positive impact to the employees and the company.

For around 95% of you within six months it has been forgotten or it simply failed and was left to rot next to the TPS reports, never to be seen again.

Why does this happen you ask yourself? If you don’t ask that question, please stop reading now. This isn't for you.

Simple, in short it is a stupid idea.

Don’t get me wrong, in some cases it works and it works really well. Those companies are also all of the case examples given and the other 95% of them are hidden away like last year’s dirty laundry.

Now before you click next or bail out on me, let me give some disclaimers and perspective.

First off, if you are in any level of management you need a healthy level of cynicism. I said a healthy level. If you have too much, you shoot down any new or progressive idea. If you have too little you accept anything new and shiny as the next best thing blindly running into the light with no regard for fact, reality or impact.

In theory if you have any common sense you should use it to evaluate everything that is coming down the road or will be implemented soon. Who are we kidding, no implementation goes 100% smooth but if you learn from your mistakes they tend to get better to the point where the problems or issues are negligible. This is growth.

Second point, you really are part of the problem or part of the solution. There is no standing by when someone is paying you to do a thing and ideally improve on that whenever possible. When you hit a plateau what you don’t realize is through entropy alone you are sliding back down.

A boss of mine a long time ago (Bill Specht) told me some fantastic advice that I try to teach everyone I can. It was basic; “Do at least one thing better today than you did yesterday and understand why.”


The hidden subtext to that logic is to constantly evaluate what you do, why you do it and the tasks you undertake to get the results you are paid to complete. If you don’t like that version, than this works, activity equals tasks, tasks equal results, if the activity doesn’t equal the results you are doing something wrong or you are inefficient or clueless.

Back to the point. Long ago I worked for this rather large company that had a new program called Target 100. The essence of this program was everything should be at 100%. Employee satisfaction, 100%. Customer satisfaction, 100%. Employee retention, 100%. You get the idea. It sounded fantastic on paper.

So what did the company do? Pretty much the opposite of anything logical or anything that made sense.

They hired marketing people. They created focus groups. They created committees that would report to other committees. They had the CFO go to a committee of customer service staff so he could take notes on the results of the questionnaire from another committee and bring it to the executive management committee that would review the progress of all the committees and set up new agendas and tasks for them for their meeting next month and new questionnaires.

They made signs. They made banners. There were branded coffee mugs, shirts were made, stickers printed, flyers sent out, memos written and edited and re-written. They went crazy selling a product that didn't exist.

At the time I was lower-mid-level management and I just sat on the sidelines and watched and participated in my various committees. I was cynical and didn't know it until later.

We had bagel day, employee appreciation day, wear your Hawaiian shirt day. Monday was free coffee day. You get the point. We celebrated days. We celebrated Posters. We celebrated memos.

A few weeks into this the employee surveys came back glowing. People loved their job. Their boss was wonderful. The banners were printed and would shine like a beacon of hope. The coffee mugs were brimming with fresh brew and not that old cheap stuff they were buying for years before.

And then reality struck. Some rocket scientist decided to check the outcomes (I don’t officially want to say that was me, but it was me). For some of you this is sales, for some it is units moved, for some it is patient’s admitted, or calls processed, however it comes down to one thing or another. What was happening with production, efficiency and cost?

Guess what changed. Very little. The key metrics went up, don’t get me wrong. There was positive movement at the line staff level. But it really wasn't very much. Something that wasn't measured was not only the actual cost of this, which was a lot, not the extra time spent by management that could have been allocated to anything better, it was really the ROI on the short term versus the ROI on the long term.

Basically, to get a 04% improvement in things it would cost x dollars and require y commitment from management that would be OK, if, and only if the improvement increased or stayed the same and the cost and commitment decreased over time to compensate for the rollout of this panacea.

Fast forward a few months later. Performance not only went back to its original number, it was below it. No one in any of the executive committees could figure this out. What was wrong with the employees? Why did performance (or key metrics) get worse after the rollout of this program? It was viewed as impossible. The talk at the executive committees was basically that the employees were flawed as a group.

I laughed to myself for weeks about this. They missed the forest through the trees. No amount of committee meetings, banners, handouts or corporate cheerleaders were going to alter one undeniable fact that all of them missed.

When you looked at the entire program from the point of view of the employee this is what they saw.

They got treated really well for a while. Bagels and coffee were brought in. There were lots of shiny new banners. People asked them lots of questions. They were happy. Then it stopped. So they reverted back to their usual habits with just enough bitterness to equate to a reduction in performance for a short period of time that would eventually go back to where it was. Or there was a net loss of performance compared to the cost of the program.

Net of the story. The program failed for one reason and one reason alone. In the mind of the employee nothing changed.

Guess what. This is what most companies do. The colors may change, the bagels may be gluten free, the coffee may be a different brand and the banners may be written Comic Sans.

Some take-away points about why this failed.

1) The process wasn't about the employee it was about statistics, meetings, committees and questionnaires

2) Communication wasn't real. It was propaganda and cheerleading. People see through that really quickly

3) No amount of bagel, coffee or random handout is going to change anyone’s perspective much past that day

4) Management was burned out with all the required follow up and it was clear to everyone

5) The culture of the company didn’t change. So the program was destined to fail.

I could leave you with the reality of this and no advice, but that would be rather boring. I will try to summarize some advice on how you can make these types of things successful. Now it is up to you to figure out what you want. Success versus really nice Power Point presentations and shiny banners.

1) Any company that needs to advertise to internal staff that they want to be the best employer around and they start a program like this has missed the forest through the trees.

2) Communicate honestly with people. Stop the propaganda. Stop the news letters that are thrown away as soon as they are sent. Be honest.

3) If your senior management isn’t 100% behind this and willing to leave their ivory tower to go out among the unwashed masses, no program on the planet will work.

4) Get rid of negative employees. It doesn't matter if they are top performers, management or the director of HR. Get rid of them. Negativity is always much worse than you know.

5) Don’t be afraid to get rid of people that do not fit the culture, the corporate need, the customer need or whatever. You lose more by keeping them around then they are worth.

6) Reward people with genuine and honest appreciation when they go above and beyond the call of duty. For you senior management people, take someone out to lunch that you have never met that is a star employee once per month. Don’t talk, listen. You will gain more credibility here with the staff than probably all the casual days combined.

7) Don’t be a hypocrite. Your reputation is destroyed if you live in the Do As I Say, But Not As I Do World. You deserve your earned accolades, but keep them quiet. If you spent 01% of your bonus (or that equivalent of company money) on buying name brand bottled water for your employees (and not the cheap knock off stuff) and had it waiting on their desk in the morning with a card that said “Thank you” I guarantee you would get substantially more back than your 01% cost just in the performance improvement of your staff.

8) Walk amongst the people. Spend a few hours per month and walk around and talk to people. A great CEO from long ago (Arnie Robin) used to do this. He was loved by the masses and all he had to do was be friendly and listen.

9) Remember people like money, but are motivated by loyalty and will stay in a job they love for less money than go to a place that basically ignores them for a 10% raise.

10) Ask people that do the activity that equates to the task that yields the result that becomes a piece of your bottom line how to improve things. For the love of all that you are or are not, talk to the people that do the work every day.