Last Updated Aug 31, 2011 7:45 AM EDT
The answer is dignity.
At well over 40%, our city school system in Harrisonburg, Va., has the highest percentage of English as Second Language (ESL) students in the state. Initially immigrants sought jobs in agriculture, mainly at local poultry plants. Over time others were drawn to the area by the presence of family or friends, or simply by people who share a common language and culture.
Two Kurdish men rent a house from us. They were hired by a poultry plant and asked if I would review their employment documents. (They had been burned before by unfair employment agreements they didn't understand.) Nothing was wrong with the forms but everything was wrong with the way they were treated. The HR manager and supervisor made jokes at their expense and were dismissive of their questions.
For example, in halting English one asked where they would clean up before their lunch breaks. The supervisor said, "You only get 20 minutes for lunch so there really isn't time. But don't worry about it. You boys will still be cleaner than what you're used to where you come from."
As I drove away I thought, "I would never treat anyone that way."
Then, with a sinking feeling, I realized I have treated employees and peers that way. I've raised my voice. I've rolled my eyes. I've exchanged smirks and knowing glances. I've responded to suggestions or comments with sarcasm not just because an idea lacked merit but also because I wanted to show how smart and insightful and oh so terribly witty I was by comparison.
I'm guessing you have, too.
Employees aren't equal. Some are less smart. Some work less hard. Some make more mistakes. Some simply can't cut it and deserve to be let go. Regardless, each deserves to be treated with respect. Sarcasm, eye rolling, and biting comments shift the focus away from performance and onto the person instead -- and dignity is the casualty.
If you talk to me about a mistake I made I may be embarrassed but I will quickly forget, especially if I learn from that mistake. If you make me feel stupid, especially in front of others, I will never forget. (And I'll probably never learn from my mistake because I will only focus on how you treated me.)
Dignity is a lot like trust: Once lost, it's almost impossible to recover.
And don't assume pay or benefits or opportunities make employees feel valued. Sure, those have an impact -- but treat employees with a lack of respect and no pay can overcome the damage to feelings of self-worth.
Later I asked our tenant whether this experience was unusual. He looked down and didn't say anything for a few moments. Finally he looked up and said, "Here they let us have jobs... but here they do not let us have dignity."
The most important thing you provide employees is not a job -- it's dignity.
It's also the easiest.
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