On Point: Employees as an investment

A well-trained workforce can be a highly valuable asset.

By Tom Weir

Fortune magazine came out with its annual list of the 100 best companies to work for last month and there were no surprises among the grocery retailers cited—Wegmans, Nugget Market, Whole Foods, Stew Leonard’s and Publix. They’ve become fixtures on the list. What’s interesting to think about is that all are respected within the industry for their business acumen, which is a pretty good indication that, for most people you might hire, being happy at work doesn’t have to equate with having an undemanding job.

Shop at these retailers’ stores and you’ll find cheerful, efficient employees who work hard to provide the type of customer experience that pays off in the form of extraordinary loyalty. But these workers don’t just show up at the door knowing how to do that. The companies train them, give them real reason to feel like responsible members of the team that keeps the business running and contributes to its success. The cost of such training is an investment, comparable in importance to a store remodel, not an expense like heat or electricity that should be cut whenever possible.

A well-trained employee will think about his or her job, how it fits in with the company’s overall goals and how it could be done better. A poorly trained employee will do what’s assigned and, when the task is accomplished, await further instructions. The difference between big-picture and small-picture workers is a key part of the difference in how shoppers will perceive one grocer’s stores versus another’s.

Of course, employee turnover can be a serious consideration in this business. A common question is: What if we pay to train him and he leaves? Years ago, Russ Vernon of West Point Market posed a better one: What if we don’t train him and he stays? That’s the really scary prospect. Fortune points out that more than 4,000 of Wegmans’ 36,000-plus employees have been with the company for more than 15 years.

The magazine cited Wegmans and Nugget Market as companies that have never had layoffs and it gave a lot of the credit for that to training. The retailers cross-train employees, so when conditions change, the workforce is flexible enough to respond and keep the stores functioning at the level customers expect.

At Stew Leonard’s, according to Fortune, senior managers froze their own salaries so lower-level workers could get raises and a no-layoff policy could be maintained. This is easier to pull off in a company like Stew Leonard’s that has only about 2,000 employees than in one where the workforce numbers in the tens of thousands. However, just about any company can find a way to convey the important message to employees that we’re all in this together.

When your company is trying to slog through tough times, it’s a lot easier if you have people who come along willingly and contribute their efforts and their intelligence to the endeavor than if you have to drag them behind you and do all the thinking yourself. The key does not lie in empty slogans the HR department downloads from the Web. It lies in creating an atmosphere where employees know for certain that your success is their success and that everyone’s contribution is important.

Executives certainly want to feel that way about their careers. Why should store employees be different? We’re all human.

Tom Weir can be reached at tom@taweir.cnc.net.

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