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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

The Corporate Running of the Bulls

Goring lives for quality

Published: Tuesday, September 5, 2006 - 22:00

Rather than travel to Pamplona, Spain, for the annual Running of the Bulls, one need go no further than the parking lots of many U.S. companies. Here people described in many company brochures as “our most important asset" are being herded and unceremoniously told to go home after years of service. The psychic goring of these employees often has already been done by an inept management team, and for some the wounds will last forever. There’s a remarkable, and bizarre, parallel between Pamplona and corporate America: long ago potential buyers of the bulls always ran ahead in order to be well placed for the purchase that followed the event. In corporate settings, management stays behind in the shadows, not wanting to confront the victims as they’re led to their "psychological slaughter."

Bulls bred to fight in the ring possess keen intelligence, uncanny peripheral vision and the ability to turn on a dime. Their goal is to meet the matador, where survival is the only game and the bull rarely wins. Likewise, employees who might have been "bullish" about their company for years now have to face an unsympathetic corporate matador and in this case, too, the employee always seems to lose. Being "bullish" no longer guarantees longevity.

This phenomenon is taking place on a fairly regular basis as companies continue their strategy of downsizing, right-sizing or, more straightforwardly, firing and displacing people who now go to the end of the unemployment lines. In fact, Chicago’s outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. indicates that layoffs spike between Labor Day and year-end. This is typically the heaviest downsizing period of the year—about 38 percent—so the outlook for more spaces in these companies’ parking lots is bright.

For some, the trauma of packing their belongings in cardboard boxes and being escorted out of the building by security guards is somewhat mitigated by a voluntary buyout. Realizing that the once paternalistic company that valued the contributions of their employees and now dismisses them without a second glance can haunt people for years.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve attended and participated in retirement parties for friends and associates from companies where an adult lifetime of employment was common. Some of these departures were voluntary, others weren’t. What strikes me at each of these events is the commentary from those who are still working. Comments such as "Wish I could retire," or "How do I get a separation package from human resources?" are certainly not indications of company loyalty. These people feel that their loyalty hasn’t been recognized or returned by top management, and the dream of being jettisoned from the company with at least a favorable separation package becomes passionate and real.

There are many organizations that return the loyalty of their employees by handling separations with sensitivity and professionalism. Each year a listing of "The 100 Best Companies To Work For" is published by Fortune magazine. Other exemplary organizations can be found in a list of Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recipients. These organizations blend a concern for employees with an equal focus on profitability. The following elements seem to be common:

  • They make people feel that they’re part of a team or, in some cases, a family.
  • They encourage open communication, informing their people of new developments and encouraging them to offer suggestions and complaints.
  • They promote from within, letting their own people bid for jobs before hiring outsiders.
  • They stress quality, enabling people to feel pride in the products or services they provide.
  • They allow their employees to share in the profits through profit sharing, stock ownership or both.
  • They reduce the distinctions of rank between top management and those in entry-level positions, and they bar executive dining rooms and exclusive perks for high-level people.
  • They devote attention and resources to creating as pleasant a workplace as possible.
  • They encourage their employees to be active in community service by providing money to organizations in which employees participate.
  • They help employees to save with matching funds.
  • They try not to lay off people without first making an effort to place them in other jobs, either with the company or elsewhere.
  • They care about the health of their employees, sometimes providing them with physical fitness centers and regular exercise, and medical programs.
  • Finally, they expand the skills of their people through training programs and reimbursement of tuition for outside courses.

Coupled with these elements should be management by walking around (MBWA). Managers with integrity and a concern for employees regularly wander through the work areas to assess the mood of the staff and to act as a conduit for concerns and questions. Doing anything less signals to employees that management doesn’t value their input and the requisite "running of the staff" to the door for opportunities elsewhere will certainly follow. Let’s hope that this mutual-disloyalty trend is reversed and management realizes that being in lock step with the needs, wants and expectations of employees is as important as being in tune with customer expectations.

In the meantime, as the nation gears up for the rush from the parking lot to home of displaced employees after Labor Day, it may be time to call my broker and invest in some cardboard-box futures.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.