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Trained Employees Are An Asset

November 26, 2009

“Our employees are our greatest asset.” Many companies say it but there is more involved in treating employees as assets than just lip service. Major corporations are constantly running expensive goodwill ads showcasing their employees and telling us how important they are. If you spoke to the employees to find out if the daily operating practices of the companies live up to the slick media slogans, the answer would often be no. The rational is obvious. If there was so much goodwill and mutual respect , they wouldn’t have to be spending big bucks talking to themselves.

In a small or growing business it is all that much more important to have employees treated like important assets. Dependence on manpower will generally be greater in the small firm than in the large one, therefore the small business owner must dedicate considerable effort to developing human resources.

Many small business owners also give lip service to the “employees are our greatest asset” crowd. But hidden away in the back of many manager’s minds is the Theory X syndrome that looks at employees as costs, frustrations and potential problems. The fears can often become a self fulfilling prophecy. It’s important that you develop a policy that is consistent with the objectives of your business.

There is no law that says you can’t be successful if you don’t have lots of employees. There is however a substantial body of evidence that says if you have employees and don’t get them properly trained, your worst fears will be realized.

A couple of examples. I recently met a successful businessman who decided to become an entrepreneur several years ago. Nearing age fifty and after a long career working for several major retail operations, he decided to go into business for himself. He opened a retail operation selling products he had extensive experience with in his previous employment.

The store has nearly 2000 thousand square feet of retail space, operates six days a week, offers free evening delivery and has substantial inventory on display. But this business is missing one common ingredient. This business has no employees! Thats right, a good sized, successful operation, open six days a week with an evening delivery service and no employees.

The owners philosophy and previous experience is that employees just add costs and headaches so he doesn’t want any. I can’t say that I agree with him and he is clearly limiting the growth potential for his business. But the point is that he has a philosophy and his operations are consistent with it. He is successful and happy.

Another example. I was recently in a well known restaurant for dinner with my family. One of my children asked the waitress for directions to the restrooms. A puzzled look came over her face and she said she wasn’t sure where they were either. I should have gotten up and left right then!

The waitress was more than pleasant and was embarrassed as she explained that she was new on the job. What kind of managers were responsible for putting a new employee in a situation like that? While you might disregard this as a poorly managed establishment, I suggest that the situation repeats itself all too frequently throughout business and industry. This was not an otherwise poorly run business.

Let me give you a contrasting example from a restaurant that is the subject of a case study in my forthcoming book. As part of their pre-employment process, they explain the operations of the business and state quite clearly that they have high standards that all employees are expected to meet. If the applicant is interested, they are offered an opportunity to take a copy of the restaurants menu, memorize it and return in several days for an additional interview and the first of three orientation sessions.

This management bases their program on two premises. First, they view the “server” as a salesperson who is a vital part of their business. Secondly, they are not going to invest the substantial time required to orient and train a new employee until they see that the applicant is willing to make a commitment. As a result they require the memorization as the test of initial commitment and the first step in a careful pre-employment training process.

The contrasting examples of two restaurants and how they train new employees may seem like an esoteric example. Don’t be fooled. The fundamental point is the continuing need to insure that the new employee gets the training required to get off to a good start.

If you don’t believe your employees will be important assets in your business, operate a business that you can run by yourself. If you are like most businesses and your employees are important assets, don’t just give lip service to the standard cliches. Take the initiative and make sure that your new employees are properly trained. Because it’s your business, you want them off to a good start.

Joe Driscoll is a management consultant and was the founder and former chief executive of several manufacturing companies. His column appears regularly in the Monday edition of the Herald.

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