Treat People Right

Shop Floor - Marshall Atkinson

Got employees?  How are you managing them?  Hopefully with a firm and even hand, that plays out as fair, motivating, and guides people towards excellence.

Despite miraculous improvements in technology, machinery and consumables we still need employees to do the work in our shops.  They are the lifeblood of our industry.  If you want a prosperous company, you better treat people right.

Recently I spoke with a long-time reader of this blog (thanks!) that works for somewhat larger apparel decorating company that is so poorly managed I just can’t believe they are still in business.  Let’s just call this person “Fred” for this article.  Obviously not their real name.  

“Fred” was so frustrated that he reached out to me to help him find another job.  Here’s a tip for you shop managers or owners out there:  When you have one of your top producers in the shop just absolutely at their wits end and wants to get the hell out of there, there’s something really wrong with how your company is being run.

So what could drive “Fred” to want to literally just take any job available because he is so fed up?  Let’s check out his complaints:

Playing favorites

For “Fred”, the main challenge has been that there is a group of workers that seem to be able to do whatever they want, as they have close ties to the Shop Manager.  Other employees have been disciplined and even terminated for the same infractions that the shop’s leadership let’s their favorites get away with constantly.

What do you think it says to “Fred” that he has to stay late, come in on a Saturday, or work like a madman to get that order completed before the UPS truck arrives; but the Shop Manager takes off every Friday afternoon to play a round of golf instead of helping manage the chaos?  When the shop is really busy, do your leaders step up…or disappear?  I like golf as much as the next guy, but if you are a leader and your crew is going crazy trying to get everything handled, you better be participating in the effort.

Leadership must set the tone.  Always.  Everyone looks up to them for guidance, and if they see problems with the how and why of management’s decisions, that only fosters a culture of disrespect and low morale.  Remember, the number one reason why people leave their jobs isn’t because of money, it’s because of poor management.  Bad bosses drive away the best people.  Just ask “Fred”.

Want to really upset your staff?  Start to play favorites. If your shop has a group of “untouchables”, and the rules don’t seem to exist for them…there could be a potential problem down the road with everyone else that is forced to play by those rules.  This is when staff members see the owner or upper management write up or suspend one group of people, but allow others to get away with the same infraction like it never happened.

Rules and procedures exist so there won’t be chaos and people know what to expect.  They only work though when metered out fairly and evenly.  Think about how you are managing your staff.  Does your company treat everyone equally?

For anyone in management, remember respect is earned not just given because you have a title.  Are you earning yours?

Arguments on the Shop Floor

One of the more unbelievable situations that “Fred” described are the extremely heated arguments that the Shop Manager gets into with people on the production floor, in front of everyone.  Even the owner of the company isn’t spared.  It’s extremely uncomfortable to witness, let alone if you are a participant.

A blue fury rage, where voices are raised and veins are popping out of your forehead and neck should never happen in the workplace.  It’s usually a sign there may be a need for some counseling instead.  Even General Patton lost his command because he was a jerk.

That type of emotion just isn’t going to get you the results you may want or need either.  Which type of manager do you think gets better performance: one that screams at you to do a better job, or one that coaches you and motivates you by showing you how?

Let’s not forget one of the golden rules of managing, “Publicly praise, privately condemn”.  If you do have to discuss a challenge with someone, take it behind a closed door and keep your voices at an even tone.  It should be a discussion, not a yell-a-thon tennis match.  At a certain decibel level, people can still hear through walls and doors.  Sure, it’s ok to disagree with someone or even be upset concerning a situation…but if you can’t act professionally you don’t have any business being a leader.

Also, this dictator style drama should never be directed at the hourly employees.  From what I understand from “Fred”, yelling at employees is the only way “Fred’s” manager knows how to lead.  It is really sad that this manager just doesn’t know any better.

Owners Let It Happen

Basically this gigantic leadership mess that “Fred” described is all made possible by the owner of the company that has allowed it to fester, like gangrene or some black icky mold at a truck stop restroom.  Yuck.  Evidently the worker’s perspective on how the shop is being managed just isn’t interesting enough to the owner.  It’s a crisis of confidence that they themselves created by ignoring who is really doing the work.

The best companies are ones that treat the employees with dignity and respect.  The staff enjoys working there and is proud to do a great job every day.  People are not only interested in mastering their job, but also growing and learning how to do other tasks in the company too.  That’s how you get someone who washes screens all day to learn how to operate an automatic press.  It doesn’t just happen by chance.

Think about your shop and your leadership quality.  Do you have people actively learning new jobs, being promoted and trained, and fully committed to continuous improvement?

Or, does your management team squash ideas and have a “my way or the highway” attitude?  (In a “my way or the highway” situation sometimes the smarter people take the highway.)

One way to test the quality of the leadership is to have the employees participate in anonymous performance reviews regarding their managers.  Want to know the truth about the quality of the leadership in your shop?  Ask the employees they manage to give them a review.  If you are really bold, have the owner participate and get all of the leadership reviewed by the troops.

Honest feedback can sting, but it is an invaluable tool for growth.

Not an Isolated Incident

Also I should mention that key employees have been leaving this company for a few years now.  What “Fred” described to me was that they all took advantage of opportunities with other shops as soon as something opened up.  They couldn’t take it either.  This has led to larger challenges for the company as a good bit of the “how” they did things went with them.  Sure, you can always replace people when they leave, but if they have a certain expertise or creative flair that’s harder to come by.

Problem companies like this are one of the reasons why there are used presses and equipment on the market all the time.  It isn’t the economy that drives these shops into the ground, it’s bad leadership decisions backed by incompetent ownership.

Let’s not forget that sooner or later the company will start to have that reputation as a poor choice for employment.  In “Fred’s” case I’ll bet it already does.  Don’t forget, in today’s online world, it doesn’t take much for a bleak picture to be painted.  Websites like Glass Door make sure of that.  What crappy company don’t I want to work for today?  There’s an app for that.

Learn From This

Why am I posting this drama on my blog this week?  I’m certainly not out to embarrass any company, which is why the person’s name has been changed and any detail about the shop omitted.  It’s not uncommon for industry people to complain about their shops in online forums or Facebook groups.  I read similar statements at least weekly, so I thought it worthwhile to post this precautionary tale.  Maybe some of the above sounds familiar.

If it does will you take action?

Not everyone is a good manager.  That is a fact.  Often in this industry, the managers are grown from within, and are usually the people who know how to do that department’s task the best.  That’s why the best artist is usually the art director, the best embroiderer or printer becomes the production manager, and so on.  Just because you have superior proficiency at a skilled task doesn’t qualify you to lead a group of the same people or organize their production schedule.

Managing is 100% related to your people skills.  You need to know how to coach and teach.  You need some empathy.  You have to be able to read people and learn how to motivate them.  You absolutely need to practice active listening.  You have to hold people accountable for their actions.  Great managers help their employees succeed.  They trust, but verify.

It’s not an easy job.

“Fred’s” problem is that he’s managed by a dolt that has tons of industry experience, but is an incredibly poor leader.  Multiply that with the company’s absentee ownership that is disinterested in the well being of their staff, and according to “Fred” just singularly focused on the bottom line.  It is no surprise that the best employees have fled the company like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

Would you stay?

So what should this company do here?  First, the owner has to take a bolder position in the company beyond the balance sheet.  It doesn’t matter what the EBITDA number reads if the key employees are bolting…and worse going to their competition.  They need to take a vested interest in the people that work for them, and to ensure that they are being treated fairly, and with respect.  I would install a company-wide performance review system that pulls in the opinions of the staff that the managers supervise.

Transparency ensures accountability.

I think the next step is fairly obvious, and that’s to go shopping for some new leadership.  Believe it or not, there are plenty of experienced leaders out there that could probably make a dramatic impact on this company.  “Fred” will be long gone by then, as well as others that have already left.  However, the new leadership could hire and groom another group and get things back on track.

So How Does Your Company Stack Up?  

Think about how your leadership deals with your employees on these points below.  Score each of these from 0 (a living hell) to 10 (rockstar status with only brown M&M’s in the bowl).  If you are below 50, you have serious problems.  Above 80 and it is probably a great place to work.  In between?  Get crackin’.

Empathy (10 points) – The leadership of the company takes a vested interest in the staff’s well being.  They care, and through programs or acts show it often.  Employees truly feel that they work for a company that cares and understands them, and is interested in their long term growth and success.

Engagement (10 points) – The leadership is engaged with employees and actively tries to make them better.  This happens in a controlled and organized manner with training in their present job or cross-training in another.  Management is interested in feedback from the staff, and will actively pursue changes to make the company better.

Communication (10 points) – Leadership communicates effectively with the company’s staff and clearly gives expectations on what’s needed in a professional way.  Active listening is encouraged, and staff feels they can talk to anyone in management about challenges and they will be heard and understood.  Departments work together as a team to solve problems by communicating expectations about orders proactively.

Transparency (10 points) – Employees are given a performance review at least annually, where their management outlines both the positive and negative aspects of the employee’s performance.  This is a scheduled event.  Areas of opportunity are outlined and goals are set to work on for the next time period.  All managers are also subject to anonymous review by the staff they supervise, with the results presented to the ownership.  The same questions and review periods are used for the managers as the employees.

Fun (10 points) – Are people smiling when they work?  Do people enjoy their jobs and enjoy working for the company?  Are their activities and opportunities throughout the year that make the company culture fantastic?  Do the majority of the staff members get along with each other?

Trust (10 points) – Do leaders trust the employees, or are they micromanaged to the point of insanity?  Are trained people allowed to work independently?  Are staff members consulted for their opinions?  Do managers delegate responsibility to subordinates without giving them the “how” to do it…just letting staff determine their own method?

Motivation (10 points) – How does your management team motivate your staff?  Do they motivate them in a professional and respectful manner?  Do they get the best performance from their staff daily?

Expectations (10 points) – Does your staff know what they are supposed to do everyday?  Are goals championed and results shared?  Is there a schedule?  Do your leaders clearly communicate the expectations for working at your company?

Rules & Procedures (10 points) – This one is for “Fred”…  Does your leadership treat everyone equally?  Do you have a company handbook that outlines the rules and procedures that everyone must follow?  If there is an infraction from an employee is it dealt with swiftly and fairly; and everyone, regardless of position, treated the same?

Challenges (10 points) – What happens when there is a problem or crisis?  Do you work together as a team to resolve it?  Does management allow others to lead to solve the problem?  Does everyone band together as a team to solve the challenge calmly and professionally?  

So how did your shop fair?

Be honest.  If you graded your shop at 100%, you probably weren’t truthful enough.  This is a test that you obviously aren’t going to turn in, so don’t feel you have to jury rig the results.  If you aren’t happy with your score though, the good news is you still can do something about it.

Work on the weak stuff.  And start by firing “Fred’s” boss.


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