We Are Not Family in the Workplace

You hear it all the time – “I love my job. We’re like family there.” It’s true that a workplace setting may sometimes resemble a family. You spend a lot of time together. You have parties together, go out to lunch, celebrate successes. Sometimes people in the office even get nicknames like Aunt Betty.

But there are big differences between a family and a business. Here are just two: a business has the goal of making a profit. And it can choose who gets to stay and who goes. With family members, for better or worse, you’re just stuck with them.

This family mentality, while it may sound inviting to outsiders and help with employees’ morale, is actually not what you want to encourage in a workplace. Yes, you can keep your parties and celebrations and encourage good relations and positive morale among co-workers. But the overall goal is to build a high-productivity team – not a happy family.

Let’s take a look at Netflix.

Netflix has 81 million subscribers and grew its revenue from $1.2 billion in 2007 to $6.8 billion. This pioneering company has changed the entertainment industry. Its history, place in our society and future is fascinating. You can read all about it in the New York Times Magazine article this past weekend, “Can Netflix Survive in the New World It Created?”

But there was a point early on when the company’s survival was in question. In 2001, after the internet bubble burst, Netflix had to lay off 50 of its 150 employees, cutting its staff by one-third. And what happened? The people who were left had to work harder, but were actually happier.

Founder and CEO Reed Hastings and former head of HR Patti McCord thought it was because they “held onto the self-motivated employees who assumed responsibility naturally.” They said office politics disappeared overnight.

Since then the company strives to maintain what Hastings calls its “high performance” culture. A lot of companies pay lip service to that value, but at Netflix, they mean it.

Netflix captured its culture in a slideshow the company produced in 2004. (And that has been viewed 14.5 million times.) This 124-slide, simply produced show includes the company’s philosophy of hiring, And firing.

“Like every company we try to hire well.”

“Unlike many companies, we practice: adequate performance gets a generous severance package.”

“We’re a team, not a family. We’re like a pro sports team, not a kids’ recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”

The analogy of the kids’ recreational team versus the pro sports team is perfect to capture the mentality I’ve seen so often in my practice with GlassRatner. I mention a few stories in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

There was the company where the CEO’s grandmother was on the payroll, but whose primary responsibility seemed to knit the CEO socks. There was the beloved “Aunt” Tess who handled payroll, helping herself to the salaries of several non-existent employees every two weeks.

I’ve seen many companies that run more like a kids’ recreational team. Everyone gets a trophy and we love the ladies who brings the snacks!

But in real life, people who don’t perform get cut from the team. And the job of CEOs and senior management is to field the best team possible. Netflix does that early on by recognizing mediocre talent and paying them to get off the team.

Zappos has a similar philosophy for cutting people quickly who aren’t going to be the best team members. They famously use “The Offer,” giving new employees the opportunity to receive $2,000 to leave rather than starting the job.

Last year, Zappos had a large increase in turnover when 18 percent of the company took buyouts, an extension of “The Offer.” Zappos was unfazed, according to this article in The Atlantic, “Why Are So Many Zappos Employees Leaving?”

“We have always felt like however many people took the offer was the right amount of people to take the offer, because what we really want is a group of Zapponians who are aligned, committed, and excited to push forward the purpose and vision of Zappos.”

That’s the kind of team you want to build. A pro sports team. Team members who don’t perform can and will be cut.

Top Tips for Keeping Employees Engaged

Last week in the column, “When Your Employees Hate Their Job,” I wrote about the lack of engagement among workers. In the U.S. it is estimated that only 30 percent of employees claim to be engaged at work, according to a recent Gallup survey of 5.4 million adults. I also included tips on what you could do about it that included changing vacation and sick day policies and letting employees write their own job descriptions.

This week, I’d like to share more radical approaches some companies have taken to make sure they have a more engaged work force. I will also share my top tips for re-engaging employees after a company goes through tough times.

How about paying people to quit? Yep, that’s what Amazon does. You can be paid up to $5,000 just to quit. This simple program is called Pay to Quit and that’s exactly what it is. All employees in the fulfillment centers are eligible for it.

Jeff Bezos, chief of Amazon, talked about the program in a recent article in Time magazine, “Amazon Will Pay You $5,000 to Quit Your Job.”

“Once a year, we offer to pay our associates to quit. The first year the offer is made, it’s for $2,000. Then it goes up one thousand dollars a year until it reaches $5,000,” he said.

The company doesn’t really want its employees to quit. In fact, the headline on the offer is  “Please Don’t Take This Offer.” The goal is to get rid of unmotivated employees. As Bezos said, “In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”

The program started at Zappos and was adapted by Amazon when it purchased the online shoe retailer. The reasoning is that it costs less in the long run to get rid of employees who don’t wish to be there than keeping these unmotivated employees on the payroll.

It’s not the first such offer the employees get. After an intensive four-week training program and one week on the actual job at Zappos, employees receive “The Offer.” They will receive a $2,000 bonus in addition to pay for the amount of time they have worked if they leave. According to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, 97 percent decline.

In my work as a turnaround authority, I have seen what can happen to companies when the employees are actively disengaged. In fact, reengaging employees is one of my greatest challenges when I take over a company. It can be almost impossible to turnaround a company when employees are unmotivated. They work slower, make more mistakes due to basic negligence and may ignore requests of their supervisors.

So how do you do get them back on board when a company is in such bad shape? By that point, it’s too late for measures like changing leave policies or paying folks to leave. They would probably exit in droves!

At that point my ability to reengage employees and turn the company around relies on two things: communication and buy-in.

I tell the story in my book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me” about working with an apparel manufacturer. The president had been fired and the company was undergoing a crisis of leadership. The interim president was constantly changing restructuring plans and announcing firings and closings almost daily, creating an emotional roller coast for the staff.

We had to conduct extensive meetings to earn support to proceed with our forbearance agreement and have time to hire a new president.

We had to be very open and honest about our plans with the staff. Once they learned they were an integral part of the process and were hearing the truth from us, we earned their trust. And we got buy-in from them for the path we were taking.

This kind of buy-in was contagious up and down the organization, and this spirit amongst the staff contributed immensely because people felt they were a part of the turnaround. They were committed to the company and seeing it survive. Anything I needed from them I got. I couldn’t have done it without communication and buy-in.