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Donkin on Work - Loyalty

February 2007 – Workers find their voice on the internet

Andy Taylor, the chief executive and chairman of Enterprise Rent-A-Car was in London last week. I had written about the company a number of times in the past and was keen to meet him.

Enterprise uses an interesting customer-feedback measure and links the results to staff promotions. It ensures that employees are focused on keeping customers happy.

The service ethic has helped to build Enterprise in to North America’s largest car rental company with more than $9bn in revenues in the past year and 64,000 employees.

Its home-grown management formula and staff training regime has been lauded in textbooks, including a new book, Exceeding Customer Expectations by Kirk Kazanjian*.

But not every member of staff has been happy working for Enterprise. A while back I came across a US-based web site called JobVent.com. This is a site that enables employees to rate their companies, awarding them plus or minus points depending on how much they love or loath their jobs.

Some 242 reviews the last time I looked - the list grows longer every week – tell a very different story about the company. It is very much a minority viewpoint but it is one that should be read alongside that in the textbooks.

The feedback puts the business in fifth place on the “I hate my job” list”. Many of the comments are detailed criticisms that make some damming claims about sales policies. It’s clear that some of these former employees do indeed care about their customers to the extent that they are questioning specific tactics designed to increase revenues.

“Any criticism at all of the company we absolutely want to hear,” says Mr Taylor. “The customer or employee we are most disappointed with is the one who leaves and doesn’t talk to us. We want to learn from every case where we fell short,” he says.

The good news for Enterprise is that this list is packed with enough “learning opportunities” to keep its managers busy for weeks.

I'm confident that Enterprise is the kind of company that can deal with criticism positively. But that doesn't mean it is going to change its style. This is a family-owned company, reared on homespun mid-western values. If you work hard, have the right attitude and learn the business you will go far at Enterprise on a traditional promotion ladder.

But this is car rental. It's not the film industry. It's not glamour work. You start at the bottom and that means washing cars from time to time. “I still wash cars, haven't got a problem with that,” says Mr Taylor. But it seems that some of the graduates who have entered the business may not feel the same way.

I'm not saying that the website grousing about Enterprise is unfair. But I am saying that too many young people are focusing so much on their education - encouraged by parents, like myself, who want the best for them - that they forget that hard work is still necessary in this world. A good education should not make us believe we are exempt from that.

Later the same day I heard H. Lee Scott, chief executive and president of Wal-Mart Stores speaking in Whitehall at an event organised for the Prince of Wales's Business and the Environment Programme.

Mr Scott speaks with all the fervour of a convert. I can't recall the number of times he used the word “sustainability”, going so far as to hope that “we will make sustainability....sustainable”. Now the message is going out to all the employees, called “associates” at Wal-Mart.

But his sermon had failed to trickle down to the chauffeurs of various company bosses in the audience whose gas-guzzling company cars I saw outside, ticking over steadily to ensure that everything was warm for their passengers when it was time to leave. Mind you, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes is easily sustainable on a top company boardroom salary.

Wal-Mart is in eighth place on the JobVent "I hate my job" list but that is based on only 82 reviews. “Not many given that we have 1.8m employees,” said the Wal-Mart executive sitting next to me when I told her about the site.

She has a point; 82 out of 1.8m is a drop in the ocean but companies cannot afford to be sniffy about these web sites. They are growing in popularity and they offer the same kind of independence and collective voice that led to the growth of trade unions.

I was surprised that neither Mr Taylor nor the Wal-Mart executive knew about the JobVent lists. Yes, such sites will be visited by malcontents, but many of the comments go far beyond simple bad-mouthing. There are reasoned, detailed appraisals in there that should be treated like gold dust by managements who profess to care about their employees’ opinions.

Earlier in the week I had met Jonathan Austin, managing director of Best Companies, who wants the star ratings that he introduced a few months back to become as sought-after among employers as the Michelin stars that are awarded to top restaurants.

The Best Companies star system is based on measures of employee engagement. This is a little different from JobVent since it only rates businesses that have sought its ratings. But it is independent nevertheless. Mr Austin noted the growing importance of external employee-based rankings in helping potential candidates make informed choices about potential employers.

The Best Companies staff survey has a few telling questions that can reveal a lot about an employer. One of these is the proposition that senior managers “do a lot of talking but not much listening”. Employees often agree with that one, it says.

Another revealing area of questioning is the extent to which companies are willing to give something back to the communities they serve. The point here, says Best Companies, is to ensure that employees are involved in such work.

Both Enterprise and Wal-Mart have good records in this respect. Wal-Mart was galvanised in to helping communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “Hurricane Katrina changed Wal-Mart for ever, and it changed us for the better,” said Mr Scott. Enterprise has created a foundation to which it sets aside 1.25 per cent of annual pre-tax profits for charitable work, including reforestation programmes.

This kind of giving, however, does not cut much ice among employees who feel they are poorly rewarded and complaints about pay tend to feature highly on the JobVent site.

At the top of its “hate list” is United Stationers, North America’s largest wholesale distributor of business products. The company has collected twice as many “minus marks” as the next on the list. Yet here is another company with strong financial performance in defiance of the comments posted by disgruntled employees.

JobVent, however, is not just about airing complaints. It has an “I love my job” list too, headed by Meditech, a health care systems company. Like Enterprise, it too promotes from within, but its reviews are mostly positive.

It stands to reason that people will visit such sites so that, if they feel moved to apply, at the job interview they can address some informed questions to the recruiting company. We can all see the dirty washing now. This means that companies must get used to the idea that the selection interview is no longer the desperate candidate facing the grand inquisitor. The tables are turning.

* Exceeding Customer Expectations, by Kirk Kazanjian, is published by Currency Doubleday.

More on this from my blog:
http://www.richarddonkin.com/blog/2007/02/sustaining-sustainability.html

   
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