Trust me — I’m your employer

Com­ing into this sea­son, we tend to reflect on the year that was and what mat­ters most in our lives. For many of us, this will be nur­tur­ing healthy rela­tion­ships. Rela­tion­ships found­ed on trust.

This year, I have made it my busi­ness to seek out and spend time with peo­ple who have built com­mu­ni­ties of trust with­in their organ­i­sa­tion and to try to bet­ter under­stand why, hap­pi­ly (for them), they need to see employ­ment lawyers so little.

A study of Buildcorp

I want to under­stand the com­po­nents that pro­duce high trust organ­i­sa­tions that are, almost with­out excep­tion, suc­cess­ful. Build­corp is one such organisation.

In 1992, Tony Sukkar, along with hun­dreds of oth­er employ­ees, was made redun­dant by Gir­van Bros when that com­pa­ny collapsed.

Rather than allow­ing them­selves to be crushed by the expe­ri­ence, Tony and his wife Josephine built a con­struc­tion busi­ness from the ground up. In the ensu­ing 20 plus years, Build­corp has grown from hum­ble begin­nings to a sec­ond tier build­ing com­pa­ny, now push­ing for first tier work. They are nudg­ing half a bil­lion dol­lars per year in rev­enue and employ hun­dreds of staff and even more sub­con­trac­tors across the country.

And here is the inter­est­ing aspect of the busi­ness: the staff seem to want to stick around for decades. Even more intrigu­ing, they encour­age their rel­a­tives to come and work for Buildcorp.

So I met with Josephine Sukkar, co-CEO, to seek out her insights on the com­pa­ny’s jour­ney and what has made it so successful.

After 1½ hours of tra­vers­ing var­i­ous top­ics, it came down to one sim­ple ele­ment: Trust.

Trust is a prod­uct of an organ­i­sa­tion hav­ing integri­ty – an organ­i­sa­tion which sim­ply acts in accor­dance with its stat­ed val­ues even when it is against its inter­ests to do so and there is no appar­ent upside.

Josephine was adamant that if you treat peo­ple with respect, and you sup­port them when they are show­ing the busi­ness respect, the prod­uct is both loy­al­ty and employ­ee engagement.

  • The lim­its of poli­cies and processes

This con­firmed my long-held view (see ear­li­er blogs) that focussing on poli­cies and process­es with­out val­ues and integri­ty does not deliv­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in a work­place – per­haps just a busi­ness with a slight­ly more organ­ised form of mal­ice at its heart.

So why is integri­ty in your process­es and val­ues so impor­tant? Because if staff do not believe that fair­ness lies at the heart of the busi­ness process, they will not use it or adopt it or, worse still, they may use it as a tool to under­mine a co-worker.

This dis­en­gaged or destruc­tive cul­ture becomes obvi­ous in two ways, each of which will dimin­ish the busi­ness’s performance.

  • Con­don­ing bad behav­iour at the top

If lead­ers with­in an organ­i­sa­tion are allowed to act in a way that is con­trary to the organ­i­sa­tion’s stat­ed val­ues, then staff will cease to trust that organ­i­sa­tion. And if an employ­ee ceas­es to trust their organ­i­sa­tion, they are going to oper­ate only with­in clear bound­aries and will spend a good part of their time being seen to be doing the right thing (even when they are not) rather than actu­al­ly think­ing about what is in the busi­ness’s inter­ests and doing that thing. They will also pick up the cue that it’s okay to push some­one else under a bus as long as you can dress it up as fol­low­ing a process. So you end up with an organ­i­sa­tion that not only tol­er­ates bad behav­iour but tac­it­ly con­dones it. It will nev­er end well.

A friend recent­ly shared an expe­ri­ence he had in the board­room where the bom­bas­tic and errat­ic CEO was demean­ing the CFO in a vicious man­ner in front of her col­leagues, includ­ing the HR Man­ag­er. Inter­est­ing­ly, the HR Man­ag­er sat pas­sive­ly and watched this unfold with­out rais­ing any form of protest. Their com­bined behav­iour sent the mes­sage to all those present that this was not an organ­i­sa­tion which worked on mer­it, as it claimed, but an organ­i­sa­tion being held hostage to the poor tem­per of the CEO. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the organ­i­sa­tion was floundering.

  • Ignor­ing bad behav­iour at the coal face

The oth­er crit­i­cal area which can be destroyed by process with­out integri­ty (and there­fore no pos­si­bil­i­ty of trust) is in the work of line man­agers. What is it about the line man­ager’s role that is so crit­i­cal? Put sim­ply, line man­agers are the front­line peo­ple who deal with staff poor per­for­mance and mis­con­duct on a day-to-day basis — or more impor­tant­ly — don’t! 

If a line man­ag­er, who works close­ly with the staff and gets to know them as peo­ple, does not feel that their organ­i­sa­tion has integri­ty and does not trust man­age­ment to fair­ly man­age staff who mis­con­duct them­selves or are per­form­ing poor­ly, they will not noti­fy man­age­ment or HR of a prob­lem before it becomes crit­i­cal (usu­al­ly when the oppor­tu­ni­ty for an effec­tive response is long past).

If line man­agers do not report issues up the line, prob­lems are like­ly to not only per­sist, but fes­ter. Ulti­mate­ly, this results in poor pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, expo­sure of the com­pa­ny to work health and safe­ty risk, increased sex­u­al harass­ment inci­dents, dis­hon­esty and bul­ly­ing inci­dents. Per­verse­ly, the long term tox­i­c­i­ty of this behav­iour often cul­mi­nates in a work­er’s com­pen­sa­tion claim by the offend­ing employ­ee when the same line man­ag­er, faced with out­ra­geous behav­iour one time too often, is pushed over the edge into express­ing unre­strained and inap­pro­pri­ate anger and frus­tra­tion towards that employee.

By the time the employ­ment lawyer gets involved, there is a litany of poor behav­iour that has per­sist­ed for a long time but is total­ly undoc­u­ment­ed — the dis­ci­pli­nary options avail­able to the com­pa­ny are lim­it­ed. Con­verse­ly, the line man­ager’s inap­pro­pri­ate response is like­ly to have caused such a stir that it is record­ed in emails (if not an inci­dent report) – and the com­pa­ny’s hands are more or less tied in deal­ing with the belea­guered line manager…

So, the equa­tion is simple:

Val­ues + integri­ty + process = Trust = Productivity

It is appro­pri­ate to point out here that, as the equa­tion indi­cates, hav­ing val­ues with­out the pro­ce­dures to back them up has its own dis­as­trous out­comes – but that is for anoth­er article.

Back to Buildcorp

Much of Josephine and Tony’s suc­cess in deal­ing with staff and encour­ag­ing a very pos­i­tive and engaged envi­ron­ment, has been intu­itive. In short they are decent peo­ple – but with an atten­tion to process. And that applies in their business.

That does­n’t mean that they are pushovers, but it does mean that they will treat peo­ple with fair­ness and that there is con­sis­ten­cy in their actions.

That’s a pret­ty attrac­tive propo­si­tion if you’re a high­ly skilled per­son look­ing to build a career — and it is a fac­tor not over­looked by their clients.

As we move into this sea­son of rest and reflec­tion, are we brave enough to ask the ques­tion Does our busi­ness oper­ate with integri­ty?” If it does­n’t, how much bet­ter would it func­tion if it was built on trust?

This arti­cle was first pub­lished as a LinkedIn blog. You can read it here.